Skip to main content

Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

Volume 831: debated on Friday 14 July 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a serving member of His Majesty’s Armed Forces.

It is a privilege to move the Second Reading of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill, which was introduced by my honourable friend Robin Millar MP in the other place and passed to this House on 27 March. I am pleased that the Bill has had a successful passage in the other place and received support from all sides, in no small measure thanks to the excellent efforts of Robin Millar.

Noble Lords may remember that during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2021, I initially tabled an amendment in Committee in this House to widen the statutory remit of the veterans advisory and pensions committees, or VAPCs, by amending the Armed Forces Act 2006. The amendment was subsequently withdrawn, following a commitment that the MoD would explore options for legislative reform of the VAPCs. The outcome is this Private Member’s Bill, which has this Government’s wholehearted support.

The historic importance of the VAPCs dates back to 1921, when they were first established as war pensions committees to support veterans and their families. Over 100 years later, the 12 committees throughout the UK, staffed by volunteers, continue to provide invaluable support to our Armed Forces community. From my own experience as a previous MoD Minister, and during my military service, I have been aware of the excellent work that is undertaken by the VAPCs in support of our veterans and their families. Their statutory role is currently solely focused on engaging with the recipients of benefits related to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme and War Pensions Scheme.

However, in response to the changing needs of the veteran community, and in the spirit of this Government’s commitment to the Armed Forces community as exemplified by the Armed Forces covenant and the creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, they are currently working beyond their statutory remit to accommodate the changing veterans’ landscape. While they can conduct these non-statutory activities as private individuals, they are constrained in their ability to do them as a collective by their current statutory basis. The Bill seeks to put what they do in reality on a statutory footing.

I turn to why the Bill is needed. It will do three things. First, it will modernise the VAPCs and move the statutory framework of the committees into the Armed Forces Act 2006, a move which reflects that the VAPCs are MoD-sponsored advisory non-departmental public bodies—in other words, arm’s-length bodies—and more properly sit within the Armed Forces Act. Historically, their main functions related to the War Pensions Scheme and, as I have said, were established in the War Pensions Act 1921. Over time, their function has extended to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. They currently assist, raise awareness and act as advocates for veterans and their families, as well as acting as an independent body providing recommendations to Ministers.

Secondly, the Bill widens the scope of the role and responsibilities of the VAPCs. Currently, their statutory functions relate to recipients of war pensions and the Armed Forces compensation schemes. This will be extended to include awareness raising of services and initiatives, such as the MoD’s Veterans Welfare Service and the Armed Forces covenant, as well as extending the cohort of veterans with whom the VAPCs can engage to all veterans and their families. Expanding the role of the VAPCs would reflect the broader range of support now available to veterans and their families. It will enable the VAPCs to carry out additional functions in relation to veterans’ issues and bring their statutory functions in line with how they have operated in practice over time.

The enabling power seeks to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations in several areas—for example: establishing committees for specified areas; provisions for memberships of committees; the appointment and removal of members and the period of their membership; committees’ functions relating to former members of the Armed Forces and family members; services provided by the Ministry of Defence to former members of the Armed Forces or former family members of members of the Armed Forces. Crucially, it includes areas covered now by the Armed Forces covenant which relate to former members, including war pensioners and war pensions. It is similar to the existing powers under the Social Security Act 1989, except that the new powers allow for a broader range of statutory functions to be given to the VAPCs.

Thirdly, the Bill allows the Secretary of State greater flexibility to align the functions of the committees over time to respond to the changing needs of veterans—changes we have witnessed over the last 10 years. This flexibility builds on the call for responsiveness to issues highlighted by the VAPCs on behalf of their volunteers, as well as veterans and their families, allowing for the statutory functions of the committees to be amended over time so that they can best serve the needs of veterans and their families without requiring amendment to primary legislation that would inevitably take more time to achieve. It also aligns with the overall vision of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the MoD to make the United Kingdom the best place in the world to be a veteran. I am proud that this Bill will help to realise that vision.

As I have previously mentioned, the VAPCs are a non-departmental public body and subject to Cabinet Office reporting requirements that reviews are to take place every five years. Earlier this year, an independent reviewer looked at the function, form, efficacy and governance of the VAPCs. The review concluded and reported to Ministers in March 2023. The recommendations will be considered by Ministers alongside the wider independent review of HMG welfare services for veterans, which is currently under way. This gives us the opportunity to ensure that the enabling power supports the full spectrum of policy and operational delivery of veterans’ services.

In conclusion, I hope that your Lordships will recognise the importance of implementing these changes. I believe that the Bill will make a tangible difference to veterans and their families, and act as an important bridge between the veteran community and the Government. I beg to move.

My Lords, whenever an item appears on the Order Paper with the word “pensions” in, it will always get my undivided and close attention. I obviously read the papers for this Bill and put my name down to make a few remarks, not totally uncoincidentally along with the following Bill, which we will be considering in more detail. There is not a lot to be said; little more than thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, for his efforts on this Bill. But I also wanted—there is a little more to be said—to press the Minister. The widening of the scope of these committees is clearly important. I very much hope that they will take the opportunity to look at an issue that has not been given the attention that it should have had up to now: post-traumatic stress disorder within the military and veterans. I take the opportunity of having the Minister’s attention to ask her to indicate that it is a key issue that will be considered in the ongoing work of these committees. I fully support the Bill and I am sure it will get the support of the House.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, for bringing forward this Bill and indicate unambiguous support for it from the Labour Party. To equip myself to say a few words, I read the Library briefing which, as ever, was excellent, and I think I understand the Bill. In my own words, I would precis it as being that the VAPCs have exceeded their formal brief for a number of years now, which has turned out to be a good thing. That has been partly regularised by terms of reference. The Bill makes the whole thing formal. Since a good thing is being made formal, that is a good thing—in fact, there are a lot of good things in the Bill. It is also a good thing to extend the terms to all veterans and their families. There has, in the other place, been an effort to make the Bill a little more perfect. I have found over many years that, as in this case, the perfect can be the enemy of the good, so we support the Bill as presented.

I want to make a couple of points on why I personally am increasingly concerned about veterans and their families. It is not because things have got worse, but because I appreciate some of the problems more fully. First, from time to time, I have contact with veterans. At first, one is surprised by the difficulties they face in their transition from service life to the civil world. One sort of thinks, “Well, that’s the sort of thing you overcome in a few months”, but they explain to me that it is a much bigger task than that. I think that is because we who have not served full-time in His Majesty’s Regular Forces just do not understand that service in the Armed Forces is not just another job; it is a way of life. When you move from active service to the civil world it is a very significant change in lifestyle, and it takes time. For that reason, anything we can reasonably do to help veterans I look upon as worth while.

Secondly, I have recently looked through the UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey Results 2023, published on 1 June 2023. As I do every time I quote this document, I commend the Ministry of Defence for its production and publication. However, I am afraid to say that is where my commendations must end, because many of the trends in the document are adverse and disturbing. While the document formally has nothing to do with veterans, clearly, as people come towards the end of their career—frequently the point at which they are adding the most value—they look forward at what is happening to their friends who have gone into retirement. A consideration in how they feel must be the extent that they feel confidence that the services we provide to veterans will be adequate. I believe that the Bill takes an important step forward to securing that. For all those reasons, we fully support the Bill and wish it godspeed through the rest of its processes.

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak to the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees’—VAPCs’—Private Member’s Bill. I thank my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton for bringing the Bill to the House and for his comprehensive exposition of the historic background to the committees. I take this opportunity to thank the committees themselves for their invaluable support to our Armed Forces community, and thank the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Tunnicliffe, for their contributions today.

My noble friend outlined the decision in his tabled amendment, brought forward in this House in November 2021, when I pledged that the MoD would look again at the role of the VAPCs. The Bill is the result of my noble friend’s endeavours and that commitment. It further contributes to the Government’s vision to make the UK the best place that we can make it to be a veteran. The MoD has explored ways to place the VAPCs on a stable, statutory footing to reflect the fact that, in recent years, they have taken on broader, non-statutory roles in raising awareness of MoD and wider veterans’ welfare initiatives of potential interest to all veterans and their families.

The VAPCs are currently in an unsustainable position. At the heart of the Bill is the gap that my noble friend rightly identified during the passage of the Armed Forces Act in 2021; it highlighted the committees’ vulnerability to being constrained in their capacity to act as collective due to their current statutory basis. It is vital that we bring the VAPCs into the 21st century and move them on to a clear and robust footing. By moving the existing statutory framework from the Social Security Act 1989 to the Armed Forces Act 2006, we will provide a more suitable home for the VAPCs and ensure sufficient statutory backing for the unstinting support they provide for our veterans and their families.

I have two points in response to my noble friend. First, the terms of reference, set in November 2021, provided the VAPCs with a non-statutory framework to cohere and guide their activities at a local level. Setting the VAPCs a clearer and wider-ranging role, as requested by them, assisted both the MoD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to better understand a future role that could align with the changing veterans’ welfare support landscape. The VAPCs’ evidence provided against this framework was presented in two reports that formed the basis of further detailed discussions between my right honourable friends the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, their senior officials and the VAPCs.

These discussions identified the types of functions that the Bill may support, although this list is by no means exhaustive. It includes, for example, VAPCs exploring key priorities, set annually by Ministers, through engagement with their local and regional veteran-support networks; supporting the MoD by acting as a conduit for regional consultation on MoD veterans’ services, assisting the MoD to understand similarities and differences between areas; and the provision of an annual evidence-based report to Ministers, reflecting the collective view of all VAPC regions and the key findings in response to the priorities set.

The second is to clarify the MoD’s intention to use the power in the Bill to bring the VAPCs’ statutory functions more in line with their current non-statutory functions, and to maintain this alignment as the activities of the VAPCs may change over time. The MoD has been careful to ensure that any proposed extension to the scope of the delegated power by moving it to the Armed Forces Act 2006 is similar to the existing power in Section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 and is limited to what is only necessary to achieve its policy outcomes in relation to MoD functions and services.

With the developments and changes that have been brought about in veterans’ support in the last number of years, it is considered important to take a fresh look at the current support systems in place for veterans. As my noble friend outlined, the recommendations from the independent review of the VAPCs, which concluded and reported to Ministers in March this year, will be considered in parallel with the current independent review of UK Government welfare services for veterans, which is due to report this summer. This review focuses on examining the effectiveness and efficiency of the range of UK Government-provided welfare services for veterans, and it identifies any duplication or gaps in support. The VAPCs are a key part of this review—and I hope that some of this will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, who particularly raised the important matter of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Any review recommendations or areas of concern raised in relation to VAPCs can be addressed as and when they arise through the powers in the Bill, which allow the Government to create regulations through delegated legislation. These regulations can range from membership and the appointment of committees and their members to the way in which the committees are to perform their functions, enabling the VAPCs to successfully adapt to address the changing needs of the veteran community and veterans’ families over time.

I make it clear that this independent review of UK Government welfare services will provide an opportunity for areas of concern to emerge before any regulations are developed. This review will enable the MoD to clarify the purpose of the VAPCs within the veterans’ ecosystem to, first, better align the committees’ work to the range of support services and the needs of the veterans’ community and, secondly, enhance the quality of the services that veterans and the Armed Forces community are offered. I suggest that this is a pragmatic way to proceed. By retaining the flexible nature of the legislation, the Government hope to establish a more stable foundation for the VAPCs, while avoiding any unnecessary administrative burden.

Specifically on the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, on the serious and identified condition of post-traumatic stress disorder, we already have a range of support services within the MoD. Part of that is provided through Defence Medical Services and part of it is provided through a combination of the MoD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs directing people to where they may go for help. I remind the noble Lord of the important change that we introduced in the Armed Forces Act 2021, when we created the covenant duty of due regard, which applies throughout the United Kingdom, to all providers of health, education and housing. There is also an extensive range of support services within the providers, and the MoD can work in conjunction with them. I hope that there is a measure of comfort and support for those who are unfortunate enough to experience this serious condition. But there is no doubt that, as I outlined, the Bill will give the VAPCs an important new locus to look at all these issues. They will liaise with veterans’ charities and the MoD and, with their new statutory basis, they will be able to give Ministers a direct report of any issues that they identify as emerging, current or suggesting that there may be a gap in provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, raised veterans’ families and correctly said that being in the services is a way of life—and I entirely agree with that. That is partly why the covenant exists and why we felt it necessary to introduce a further duty of due regard in the Armed Forces Act 2021. He is correct that the transition to civilian life will be straightforward for a number of Armed Forces personnel but that it will not be for others. The MoD is cognisant of that, and we already have a lot of preparatory measures in place to assist veterans who have decided that they will retire from the Armed Forces, to help them to prepare for that transition. I offer to write to the noble Lord with details, because he might be unaware of the extensive range of support that is produced and available to service personnel as they approach that very important period in their lives.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, referred to the continuous attitude survey results. The MoD is absolutely up front about that. We look at those results closely and will of course take it very seriously if we identify anything emerging that is disturbing. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, although I hate the platitude “another tool in the box”, I feel that the Bill is another raft of identification, protection and support by which those of us who are trying to provide help—whether it is the MoD, other agencies, charities, government departments or bodies such as the NHS—will be better able to understand whether there are gaps, whether the help is reaching our veterans and whether we need to do more to support them in their civilian lives.

While I cannot speculate on the outcome of the current review’s recommendations, they will form the basis on which the delegated legislation for the VAPCs can be drafted, ensuring that their support to veterans reflects the on-the-ground reality of the important work they do for the veterans communities across the UK. I have endeavoured to illustrate, in summary, some of what is currently happening.

The priority for today is to ensure that this Private Member’s Bill, which addresses the important issue of support for our veterans and their families, receives a smooth passage through the House. I conclude by thanking once again my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton for his committed work and persistence in ensuring the passage of the Armed Forces Act in 2021, which I was privy to and through which I was able to understand where his concerns lay. That has made it possible to develop this Bill, which I wholeheartedly support and commend to the House.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for being true to her word when the Armed Forces Act went through your Lordships’ House. Some two years later we see the result of that, so I am very grateful to her. I am equally grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Tunnicliffe, for their support.

Despite my youthful good looks, I am now in my 35th year of service in His Majesty’s Armed Forces. Over that time, I have seen the landscape in which our veterans live and our servicemen work change dramatically. I am delighted to be here today. We are not quite there yet, but I have tried to change this for seven years now, since I was a Veterans Minister myself, so it is quite heartwarming to be nearly at the point when we have achieved it.

Equally, I have been involved in the last four Armed Forces Bills going through Parliament, either as the Minister or as a Back-Bencher, and they demonstrate how quickly that landscape changes. That is why, while I recognise that some of the enabling legislation that will result from this can sometimes be controversial, I do not want to have to wait another seven years to be able to update the work of the VAPCs. Having been involved in their work for many years, I know that these are truly committed people who give up their valuable time to make an incredibly positive contribution to our veterans community. I know that, as a result of this Bill hopefully passing your Lordships’ House in due course, they will be grateful to be enabled to do even more for our veterans community.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.