[Relevant Documents: Ninth Report of the Defence Committee, Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report 2017, HC 707, and the Government Response, HC 1571, and Eleventh Report of the Defence Committee, Mental Health and the Armed Forces, Part One: The scale of mental health issues, HC 813, and the Government Response, HC 1635.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Veterans Strategy.
Before embarking on this important subject, which I am very pleased to get to, perhaps I can just reflect on the debate we have just had on Brexit and our relationship with the European Union. Whatever happens, and whatever our relationship with the European Union, Britain must and will continue to play a pivotal role on the international stage, especially when we are seeing threats diversify and become more complex, added to the fact that we are testing the limits of our planet. Very few nations have the ability and desire to step forward to help shape the world around them. Whatever ID card we end up having in our back pockets, we must remain a nation with tier 1 capabilities—with that full-spectrum defence posture—and able to protect our people, defend our interests and, of course, promote prosperity. I hope we will gain the full support of the House as we make the case in the forthcoming spending review for a strong defence capability.
It is appropriate to reflect on this weekend’s events, which are very much in our minds. The nation paused to give thanks to a previous generation, which stepped forward to defend our values, our shores and our way of life. The numbers are difficult to contemplate in today’s context. Lord Kitchener’s call, “Your country needs you", went out to an entire generation. Six million Britons were mobilised. I had the opportunity to visit the Bournemouth grammar school in my constituency on Friday, before the anniversary of the armistice. I learned that 600 children had lied about their age in order to sign up for the cause—to sign up to defend Britain. One hundred of them did not return.
Also prior to the anniversary of the armistice, I had the honour of visiting the cemetery at Tyne Cot—the hill that was fought over in the third battle of Ypres. Those who have visited this incredible cemetery will know that there are 12,000 war graves there, two thirds of which do not have names on. Around the walls are 34,000 more names of those who were never found—the soldiers there is no gravestone for. That shows the scale of what happened a century ago, when an entire nation was mobilised.
War then was not glorious, as we thought it might be. It provided new tactics and a different approach to our armed forces, which we see in many ways today. There was also a focus on something that we absolutely recognise today: post-combat care. Many of the household names that we are familiar with—Combat Stress, Blesma, SSAFA, the Royal British Legion and even the poppy appeal—all stem from the first world war. SSAFA actually goes back further than that, to the Egyptian campaign.
The Minister is raising a very important issue, but I think that it has sometimes led us astray in our diagnosis. A lot of work done recently suggests that people who have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have actually suffered a blow to the head. We would do far better to treat them for that and to provide neuro- rehabilitation than to treat them for post-traumatic stress disorder. Does the Minister recognise that?
I do recognise that. If I may, I will come on to that. I am simply making the point that this was the first time there was a recognition of shell shock—post-traumatic stress disorder. These were names that did not really apply then. There was not a full understanding of what was going on with our troops, but there was a recognition by the nation that we had to look after our returning troops in one form or another. There was a duty of care, which is what we are focusing on today.
What the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is referring to is often described in the United States as mild traumatic brain injury, or MTBI. We have done a lot of research in this country, but if we are honest, the Americans are a bit ahead of us on this. As the Minister will know, it is often very difficult to diagnose accurately what is PTSD and what is MTBI. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue in the Chamber, and I say to the Minister that we probably need more research in this area to devise the best possible balance of treatment.
I am building up to that but, to respond directly, it is important to share an understanding of what we are doing. I had the pleasure of attending the Invictus games in Sydney, which is such an illustration of how those who are injured, whether mentally or physically, find a new chapter. They are unconquered. They are moving forward with their lives successfully.
At the same time, in the margins of those events, we brought together all the Veterans Ministers of the “Five Eyes” community to share knowledge. The American team presented studies on suicide prevention, on blast injury and on mental health. It is interesting to see how we can compare notes, pick up ideas and share best practice, which is so important. Indeed, I was pleased to sign a memorandum of understanding to make sure that we share our knowledge and provide the best possible support for our veterans.
We should put on the record in Hansard our thanks to Prince Harry for ensuring that the Invictus games have become a reality. As happens all too often, the recognition of his initiative has perhaps been lost, and it would be good for the House to reflect that the Invictus games started through his efforts, his energy and his interest.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The whole House, indeed the nation, is indebted to the efforts of Prince Harry, who once again was able to come to the games, which are his creation. The Invictus Games Foundation has now got into a steady drumbeat of bringing together people from across the world every second year, and I am pleased to say that we will now hold a domestic event in the interim years, which again is all about bringing together and supporting those, whether they are in the armed forces or are veterans, who need to be given support to move forward. This has been hugely successful.
On Monday I had the privilege of launching the “Walking Home for Christmas” campaign with Invictus games medallists. The campaign, with Help for Heroes and Walking with the Wounded, is targeted at veterans whom we struggle to support over the Christmas period, when they are at their most vulnerable. Does the Minister agree that it is at this point that we need to honour the covenant and make sure that we not only respect those who served during world war one and world war two but now remember those who served more recently?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. The Ministry of Defence works with Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion on making the Invictus games a reality and in pushing forward Prince Harry’s vision.
The hon. Lady is also right to illustrate the changing requirements of our veterans. The profile will change. Over the next 10 years, the numbers will move from 2.5 million to 1.5 million, and many of the latter will be veterans from the Afghan and Iraq campaigns. Indeed, they do not even call themselves veterans, which is interesting—they see themselves as ex-forces, leaving the veteran label to national service and second world war personnel. Either way, she is right that that support should be there.
None of this was in place when I departed the regular forces. I do not mean to say that we have got it right—it is a moving force that morphs as we develop—but I am pleased that we have the building blocks to advance our support for veterans. The 10-year strategy is based on the covenant, which the hon. Lady mentioned. The covenant is often raised in Parliament, and it is the nation’s commitment to making sure that anybody who has served is not hindered by their service or held back because of what they have done. That message needs to go out to every single Department, not just those in and around the MOD. It can be tricky for a Department that perhaps is not military facing to be aware of its responsibilities to veterans and armed forces personnel.
Our second pillar of support is the veterans board, chaired by the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister, which brings together the Secretaries of State of the various Departments so that local government is held to account. I encourage every Member of Parliament to visit their local authority and ask, “Who is your veterans champion? Who is the person who will help to challenge or deal with matters of homelessness and housing?” The veterans champion will be the focal point in their area.
I met a veteran earlier this week who went to his local authority to say that he was homeless and needed support. He had been out of service for four months, and he was told that there were others in the queue who were more relevant, including refugees who had just arrived. He ended up homeless and was supported by Help for Heroes. Does that not suggest that local government is still not fulfilling its obligations under the covenant?
I do not know to which local authority the hon. Lady is referring. If she would like to write to me with the details, I would be more than happy to look into the matter. She is absolutely right. Like many other aspects of national government, we are seeing different standards across the country, and often it is to do with the historical relationship that a local authority has had with the military.
We would expect Portsmouth to get this right, because of the longevity of its relationship with the military, likewise Staffordshire, with the arboretum. In Bournemouth, in my own constituency, this is not something that comes naturally, because Bournemouth is a very new town with no relationship with the armed forces, but that should not prevent it from being aware of its duties in honouring the armed forces covenant.
The Minister rightly mentions Staffordshire. In North Staffordshire we have the tri-services and veterans support centre, which provides in-community pastoral support and experienced services for ex-service personnel who live across Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire. The centre is currently in a building owned by Staffordshire County Council. Does he agree it is important that such services are protected and safeguarded, and that it is the duty of local authorities to make sure that such services continue for the long term? Without them, problems will arise in the acute sector, which is not good for anyone.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point clearly. We want every local authority to recognise what its duties are to help our brave veterans. The more we can do that via the veterans board, the better it will be. In these discussions we are illustrating the variety of support that veterans receive, whether it be from charities, local authorities or, indeed, Government Departments—
I apologise. I thought there was a full stop. I am embarrassed.
If local authority veterans champions, who in my constituency include Terence Chapman of Arun District Council and Tom Wye of Worthing Borough Council, and others were encouraged to make known the kinds of things they are doing—obviously preserving confidentiality in individual cases—more people would know what is available and to whom they can refer if there is a problem. The key task is to make sure there is not a problem so that the veterans champions do not have to be brought in because the covenant is built into what local authorities are doing.
My hon. Friend is right. It should be the mindset, the modus operandi, of any local authority. It should be very clear who the armed forces champion is—it should be on the local authority website so that people know who to go to.
Many types of support are available for veterans. A veteran may be in a very dark place when they seek support, and the last thing we need is a confusing picture as to where that support can be found. Charities have been mentioned, as have local authorities and national government. Each plays a role, and we have established the veterans gateway to provide a single portal where any individual can make a phone call or go online to seek the necessary help to guide them to where they need to go.
Again, this is in its infancy. We have 400 service-facing charities, not all of which are signed up to the gateway. We want them all to sign up. The big ones have signed up, but they are also running their own call centres. Either way, we need this to work. We need this to be the vehicle, the single portal, for any veteran who requires help. When I refer to help, it is not necessarily physical support—it might be help in looking for more employment or in setting up their own initiative—but this is where they need to go.
I wasn’t, actually, but the Minister has enticed me. I agree with everything he has said, and my local council is determined to do everything it can, because we send a lot of young men and women from the Rhondda into the armed forces. However, I just wonder whether there is something the Government need to do as a prior step, which is to check for brain injury the moment somebody joins up. There is strong evidence now to suggest that kids from poorer backgrounds are four times more likely to have a significant brain injury either in their teenage years or before the age of five. Once they have had one brain injury, they will have another. If we could screen everybody coming into the armed forces, we might be able to provide a better standard of living.
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. First, let me say that screening does take place; medicals are done to make sure that people are fit for service. He touches on a science that is still evolving, and which I have only just started to learn about. Someone who is subject to a blast injury might stand up and walk away from it, but be unaware that their DNA has been shunted in some way that could have long-term impacts. We are still coming to terms with recognising that, and we need to advance our understanding of it. The Royal Foundation, which is supported by Prince Harry and Prince William, is providing funding for us to look into this and get a better understanding of what is happening. That goes along with our studies with the Forces in Mind Trust. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight something that understanding brain injuries is pivotal, particularly if they happen prior to someone’s signing up or on the battlefield.
We could almost have our own debate on this issue, first because of its importance and secondly because we are talking about exactly the sort of advancement we need to undertake to look after and care for our veterans.
Let me move from the detail and step back to the wider support we provide to our armed forces. I have mentioned the armed forces covenant as the overall policy and the Veterans Board getting Departments working together. We also have the gateway, and Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, is doing a far better job of bringing together like-minded charities to work together. They are now working on cluster lines, so the employment cluster is bringing the relevant charities together and the same is happening for housing and mental health. They are doing far better work in co-ordinating their activities, as has been touched on.
Another strand or building block, which we have sort of skirted over so far, is our entire mental health strategy. I look back at my own time serving, when even a mention of any form of mental injury was a no-no; people did not raise it whatsoever, not just in the armed forces but in society. We are now seeing a far more open-minded approach to this issue, whereby people are putting their hand up and saying, “Yes, I have had a problem with this.” If people do that at an early stage, help can be brought in and it can prevent problems from incubating.
Our new approach is encouraging parity between physical and mental injury, so that we promote better practice and tackle the stigma attached to mental health, which helps prevention in the first place. We are also getting better at detection. Whether someone is a platoon commander or a ship commander, they are encouraging people to step forward and look out for mental ill health, and then the individual involved or a friend of theirs may put their hand up. We are saying, “Put your hand up, get yourself checked out. It is okay to do so. It is okay to say you are not okay. Get it treated. Get it sorted. Get yourself back on the frontline, without fear that you are going to be affected in your promotion or long-term prospects in the armed forces.”
As the Minister may know, although some in the House may not, the Royal Marines developed trauma risk management—TRIM—which has been so successful that it is now taught across the whole of the armed forces. The essential thing about it is that someone’s mates absolve them, saying, “Look, Bill, we can see you’re struggling, mate. It could happen to any of us. It’s happening to you. Let’s not pretend. Let’s go and see the medical officer and get some help.” Will the Minister confirm to the House that that has been an extremely successful policy, meaning it is now easier for people to be honest about what they are going through?
My right hon. Friend makes such a valid point, and it is not just Bill, but Belinda and everybody else. It applies not only to those in uniform but to the armed forces fraternity as a whole—it is the families as well. They may be the first people to pick up on the fact that something is not quite right. In my time, people held back and kept this to themselves, but it would incubate and then they would leave the thing they loved. It then became an issue for a veterans charity or the NHS, because people had not dealt with it from the earliest point. My right hon. Friend rightly points out that TRIM was developed in the Marines, who got it from the United States, and it is now being rolled out as better practice right across the armed forces.
The veterans strategy is about bringing all those things together. It is about looking forward and having a 10-year vision of a cross-government approach. I am pleased to say that it has the support of all the devolved Administrations. It is so important that we can let veterans and their families have a full understanding of what to expect from the armed forces and other agencies for the rest of their lives. The strategy is also about promoting and celebrating what our armed forces do; we need to tell people about their success stories. We have not been particularly good at that. We also need to promote the fact of what those in our armed forces actually do.
I was struck by a phone call I had with my mother, in which we talked about her father—my grandfather. I remember sitting on his knee and him talking about the battle of Passchendaele. I could not even say the word, as I was only four or five at the time, but I remember it because he showed me his medals. I had a personal connection with somebody who fought in the first world war. My two little boys do not have that connection, as there is now a distance. The cohort of people who are directly connected to armed forces personnel today has shrunk considerably from what it was at the time of the first world war, when an entire generation—every village, town and city—was affected. Everyone knew somebody who had been injured or killed, and they knew people who had survived. We need to make sure that there is not a skewed view of what it is like to be in our armed forces.
I make it clear that someone who serves in our armed forces will come out a stronger, better person, but obviously some people require help. Some of the things we see on TV, with “Bodyguard” being the latest example, give the impression that if people serve, they may be mentally affected. What does that do to the reputation of the armed forces? What does it do to a potential recruit if they get the idea that they might be mentally affected if they join the armed forces? It hinders them in signing up. What does it to do an employer that does not have exposure to or knowledge of what it is like being in the armed forces? It gives them a bias against signing up someone who has military experience. Veterans themselves might also hold a stigma about this because they have served. We need to change that. We need to be very proud of these people—particularly in Britain, because of the professionalism of our armed forces.
That brings me back to promoting and celebrating what our armed forces actually do, and we are going to push that forward through a consultation paper. The veterans strategy has now been published—it was issued yesterday, and there will now be a consultation lasting 12 weeks, in all corners of the country, to address how we implement it. It will deal with how we put this work into practice, which will be slightly different in different places. We are all aware of the challenges in Northern Ireland, where a very different approach needs to be taken from that in other parts of the country. I look forward to getting feedback from individual Members, as well as from charities, councils, academics, service providers and veterans communities themselves, on how we can make this work.
Extra funding has come through from the Budget; we have an extra £2 billion for the NHS mental health budget and £100 million for the rough sleeping strategy— that must obviously include the veterans aspect of the issue, which we have touched on. There is a further £10 million in the covenant fund trust, from which individual charities and organisations can bid for further funding to promote their own schemes and so forth. We have also developed specialist support, through the veterans’ mental health and wellbeing fund and, in England—this is a mouthful—through the veterans’ mental health transition, intervention and liaison service, which provides specialist locations where mental health issues can be looked at.
I had the pleasure of attending the Remembrance Day commemorations in Belfast at the weekend, and I took the opportunity to visit a veterans charity and to speak about how we can activate and invigorate the covenant over there. I also met some of the hon. Gentleman’s Northern Ireland colleagues, and I will be going there very soon to bring stakeholders together, because I appreciate that there is a different picture over there. We need to work closely at the grassroots level, but we will create a plan to implement the strategy in a way that meets Northern Ireland’s specific needs.
I am pre-empting the Opposition spokesperson, but we need better data. We need to know who our veterans are and whether our GPs are helping them, and we need to understand particular challenges such as suicide and so forth. We are now looking at ways of making that happen and working with the Ministry of Justice so that we can better track what is going on. We check with our veterans 12 months after they have departed the armed forces, and they already go through a transition package, often lasting two years, to make sure they are equipped. As I well remember, moving from the armed forces, where one feels part of a family, a unit, a community, a tribe, and into the wide open world is quite a culture shock, and we need to be there for veterans. We cannot just give them up. Some 90% of those who go through the transition service are in education or employment within six months of their departure.
I hope that I have illustrated my passion, and that of the ministerial team I am pleased to see here supporting me, for the veterans strategy. The Defence Secretary shares that passion and very much wants it to work. We are advancing our support for the armed forces community. To those thinking of a career in the armed forces, I say: I encourage you. You will do things you never thought you would do, you will learn things about your character you never thought you would learn, and when you march on the parade square for the very first time, you will make your mum and dad very proud as you begin to represent the nation. To those serving, in both the regulars and reserves, and to their families, I say: thank you for your service. You allow us to say we have the most professional armed forces in the world. And to our brave veterans—I mentioned Kitchener saying 100 years ago, “Your country needs you”—I simply say: your country owes you. We owe you a debt of gratitude and support for the rest of your lives.
Before I start, I must apologise. I might be a little croaky today, but I will do the best I can.
I am pleased that the Government have scheduled a debate on the veterans strategy in Government time. It is vital that we recognise the unstinting service of our brave armed forces men and women and ensure that the best opportunities are available to help them transition into civilian life. This is first and foremost important for veterans themselves, their partners and children, but it also benefits our wider society if their skills are used to best advantage.
Many veterans transition successfully into civilian life, but we want easily accessible early intervention and support services for the veterans who need them. Moreover, we should aim high and be ambitious for our veterans. We want to see the best possible opportunities and the smoothest possible transition to civilian life for all our veterans. Let us not forget that delays in obtaining suitable housing, accessing appropriate educational opportunities and getting a job also have a detrimental impact on veterans’ families.
I welcome the Government’s publication of a veterans strategy, but, as we all know, this is only a first step. There will now be a consultation. Then what will really matter will be the implementation of the strategy, its outcomes and how it actually improves the lives of veterans. I do not doubt that the Minister and his team are committed to improving provision for veterans, but there has to be a genuine cross-governmental approach. As the strategy explains, the vast majority of services for veterans are delivered through Departments other than the MOD. It is not enough for the Government simply to establish the ministerial covenant and veterans board. There must be a genuine commitment from the Treasury to ensure that the necessary funding is provided to local councils, health services, housing providers, further education colleges and the devolved Administrations, so that they can all deliver high-quality services for our veterans.
Time and again, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the warm words of Ministers about their concern for veterans and the way they vote in Parliament, as if the problems have nothing to do with the cuts and policies they have voted for, and as if it was not they who voted to slash council budgets by 50%; who have cut further education funding by over £3 billion in real terms since 2010—25% of all FE funding; who have broken the link between inflation and benefits for the first time ever; who introduced the bedroom tax; and who have not built the affordable homes needed to end the housing crisis. Fewer new homes for social rent were built last year than in any year since records began. It is often as a direct result of those decisions that veterans are left homeless, unable to access courses to help them into a new job, waiting too long for health care, getting into financial difficulties and even sadly ending up in the criminal justice system. Estimates on the number of homeless veterans vary.
I apologise, but as the hon. Lady has introduced a note of partisanship into this debate, I have to ask her something. Last Thursday, I took part in a debate on LBC with a vile man called Aaron Bastani, who is a close associate of the Leader of the Opposition. During that debate, he said, first, that the poppy was a militaristic symbol and that it was racist to wear it, secondly, that the Royal British Legion should be abolished and, thirdly, that celebrating the Invictus games was like
“putting lipstick on a pig”.
As I understand it, this man is a member of the Labour party. Will the shadow Secretary of State condemn unequivocally those remarks and assure the House that he will be thrown out of the Labour party without delay?
As I have already said on air—it is on the record—I absolutely deplore that man’s comments. I reassure Members from all parties that he holds no position of office in the Labour party, that he is not an elected representative, and that he in no way represents the views of my colleagues, many of whom were at their local war memorials up and down the country on Sunday morning, wearing their poppies very proudly. The man is an utter disgrace and I have called on him to retract completely what he said. It is up to the party authorities to consider further action in his case.
Let me go back to homeless veterans. Estimates of the number of homeless veterans vary, but it is truly shameful that anyone who served this country should find himself or herself on the streets. This Conservative Government must take responsibility for their failure to deal with the problem. Rough sleeping has doubled since 2010, and homelessness is a direct consequence of the Government’s decisions on housing and welfare reform and their unprecedented cuts to local council budgets and charities. We cannot deal with homelessness unless we build more homes that are affordable to rent or to buy. Labour is committed to dealing with homeless veterans through our comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. As we have announced, we would make 8,000 affordable homes available for people with a history of sleeping on the streets, and a Labour Government would build 100,000 affordable homes a year—homes that are affordable to rent and homes that are affordable to buy.
Despite the severe cuts imposed on councils by the Conservative Government, many councils are trying to improve their provision for veterans. I wish to share with the House some examples of the Labour council initiatives to provide homes for veterans, which I have had the privilege of visiting. Cardiff Council has worked with the housing organisation Trivallis and the Welsh Veterans Partnership to deliver a new housing development in Cardiff bay. It is made up of 152 properties, of which at least 15% are allocated to veterans and their families. The Welsh Veterans Partnership also provides help with employment, education and healthcare. It is clear that this multi-agency approach is beneficial to the resettlement and wellbeing of veterans and their families.
I have also visited the Nelson Project, which is part of Labour-controlled Plymouth City Council’s award-winning plan for homes, an £80 million investment to increase the quality and supply of new housing in the city. The project enabled ex-service personnel themselves to help to build a 24-home site, thereby providing them with construction training and other valuable job-based skills. Thanks to that initiative, many have subsequently found work in the construction industry.
Armed forces personnel develop a whole range of skills, and it is vital that those skills are tradeable in civilian life. I know that some work has been done to link the skills people gain while serving in the armed forces to recognised qualifications, but there needs to be a comprehensive system of recognition and equivalence to established qualifications, so that veterans themselves value the skills they have and employers recognise those skills when recruiting. We also need comprehensive provision throughout the country to enable former armed forces personnel to improve their employment chances by enhancing their existing skills or learning new ones. In the fast-changing world we live in, even what we learn today can be out of date by next year, and people may need to retrain or upskill more than once during their working lives. That is why we on the Labour Benches are so committed to lifelong learning. As we set out in our manifesto last year, we will introduce free, lifelong education, delivered through further education colleges, to enable everyone, including veterans, to upskill or retrain at any point in life. That is in sharp contrast to the Government’s cuts to adult education. Of course, one way in which former personnel can gain valuable skills is through apprenticeships. Labour has also made a commitment to set targets to increase the number of veterans who are able to take advantage of such opportunities.
Labour Members also support a guaranteed-interview scheme for veterans, in which former service personnel who meet the minimum requirements for a job would be guaranteed an interview. Some local authorities, such as Labour’s North Tyneside Council, already operate such schemes, and we are keen to see them rolled out throughout the country as a practical way to help veterans with the transition from the services into employment.
Let me turn to mental health. As I have already said, the overwhelming majority of personnel transition into civilian life without any difficulty, so we must challenge any negative stereotype that serving in the forces leaves personnel in some way broken. That is clearly not the case, and I was pleased to see that the veterans strategy makes reference to the work that is needed to challenge the public perception of veterans and to dispel unhelpful myths. At the same time, proper support must be available for those former service personnel who require access to mental health support. The effects and consequences of mental health problems can be devastating.
Earlier this year, the Defence Committee found:
“It is still taking too long for veterans to access treatment when they need it, and levels of care vary across the UK.”
There is particular concern that the guarantee contained in the armed forces covenant—that veterans should receive priority treatment if it relates to a condition that results from their service in the armed forces—is caveated by the phrase “according to clinical need”. The reality is that any meaningful prioritisation is near impossible when waiting times are often far too long, even for urgent cases. The fact is that our mental health services are under considerable pressure, with funding cut by more than 8% since 2010 and the number of mental health nurses down by 6,600.
The strategy aspires to better collaboration and co-ordination of veterans’ services, although there is little suggestion as to how that might be achieved. I am also a little disappointed that the strategy does not do enough to tackle the thorny issue of keeping track of veterans. It is not straightforward because, while some veterans will want to maintain contact with their previous employment through one of the many military organisations, others may not. We need a discussion about the usefulness and the practicality of keeping in touch with veterans.
I declare an interest as my husband is a veteran and a veterans’ champion. Professional services need to become available, but veterans themselves have great skills in understanding the experiences that other veterans have had. I wonder whether Members across the House could come together to agree that peer-to-peer support would also be extremely important for veterans and to support the funding of that moving forward.
The hon. Lady makes a valuable contribution to this debate. We would certainly want to look into that.
The strategy does not really consider whether parts of the armed forces covenant should be statutory and not simply aspirational. It does not propose a strategy to develop and maintain greater consistency across all sectors of our public services. The Minister has rightly expressed concern that there is patchiness across the country. There are some fabulous examples of things really working well, but that is not always consistent. There is a debate to be had about the degree to which Government should intervene. Potentially we should be thinking about making some things statutory. Perhaps there should be some requirements to improve consistency across the country.
This morning, I visited the charity Veterans Aid. It is clear from its work that veterans can and do experience many of the same socioeconomic challenges that are faced by society at large—challenges caused by eight years of the Government’s austerity programme. Indeed, among the support that Veterans Aid has provided in the last year is emergency food and money for clothing, needs arising from the problems that many of us see all too often across our communities. It beggars belief that, in 2018, anyone—veteran or otherwise—should need that kind of assistance, but we know that the use of food banks has skyrocketed under this Government.
To be clear, the point is not that veterans specifically are reliant on emergency funds from charities, but rather that it is the political decisions made by the Conservative party since 2010 to slash social security and to impose measures such as the bedroom tax that mean that the real issue is poverty. It is all very well having a strategy that identifies ways to support veterans, but we cannot divorce that from the context of eight years of Conservative cuts. So let us have a proper joined-up approach across Government which increases funding for mental health services, funds lifelong learning and builds more affordable housing. That is what is needed for our veterans and, if this Conservative Government cannot deliver it, a Labour Government will.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate about how we should best look after veterans who have given so much in the service of their country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who is acknowledged by the House as someone who knows a lot about this subject. We are grateful for her remarks. It is a particular pleasure to participate in a debate with a Minister who is passionately committed to the support of veterans and who is respected across the House of Commons as a result. We know where his heart lies and we respect him for it.
I offer apologies to the House for my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee. Ordinarily he would have spoken in such a debate, but unfortunately he had an unbreakable commitment today. He has asked me to a make a particular point in his absence about war widows. There is a key flaw in the current policy around war widows, which is that if someone’s spouse died or left military or war service after 31 March 1973 and before 5 April 2005, and the widow remarried or cohabited, they were required to surrender their war pension or compensation. A majority in that group are the widows of soldiers who were killed during the troubles. They have had to deal with not only the loss of their spouse, but the financial hardship that has been caused to many widows who have wanted to move on with their lives in new relationships. On behalf of my right hon. Friend, I sincerely ask the Minister to give us a commitment that he will at least reflect on this issue and see whether there is more that the Government can do.
I have also been asked to pass on apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who cannot be with us today. I think that the whole House would acknowledge that he has done a tremendous job as the Prime Minister’s representative for the commemoration of world war one. My hon. Friend has asked me to make a brief point in his absence about the new centre for conflict wound research. He knows a lot about that subject, because a few years ago he undertook a report for the Prime Minister on the treatment of those who have suffered injuries, particularly to their limbs. The new centre for conflict wound research opened on Tuesday at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. It has been sensibly located close to the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, which has absorbed the old Headley Court in Surrey.
The case for moving Headley to the midlands was underpinned by the promise of closer NHS and defence medical services collaboration, so that military and civilian patients and researchers could benefit holistically from complex trauma experience. However, the NHS has not fully engaged with the same enthusiasm as the military, which means that the original vision is falling short. Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues in the Department of Health to see whether something can be done to put this right? The more we learn about treating such wounds and the better we become at dealing with prosthetics, the more that that will benefit civilian NHS patients, as well as, obviously, veterans. It is literally a win-win.
In many ways, this is a timely debate, not least because it comes a few days after the nation paid tribute to its war dead and wounded in the centenary of the armistice, to which the Minister rightly referred in his excellent speech. I believe that this event really captured the imagination of the British people, with ceremonies held the length and breadth of the United Kingdom—from the ceremony at the Cenotaph right down to individual commemorations in villages and parishes around the nation in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In my constituency of Rayleigh and Wickford, I attended four services that day, including the lighting of a centenary beacon in the evening, and I know that many colleagues on both sides of the House will have done the same. As an aside, I know that the weather was variable around the country, and that therefore a number of MPs were prepared to get quite wet in the rain to pay their respects, unlike some other prominent people on the world stage.
In Rayleigh, people across the community have been working for many months to produce 12,000 knitted poppies, which were put together to create a waterfall effect around Holy Trinity church in the town centre. People came from far and wide—much to the delight of local traders—to see this wonderful tribute. Let me take this opportunity to place on record my sincere appreciation to all those involved from my constituency and beyond, including the redoubtable Rayleigh women’s institute, the Hockley and Hawkwell day centre, and the mother of my PA, Adele Jacquin—it is always good to read your staff into the record, Madam Deputy Speaker—who lives in Cheltenham and also knitted poppies for the display. I have often been proud to be the Member of Parliament for Rayleigh and Wickford, but I do not think I have ever been as proud as when I saw that commemorative waterfall unveiled.
At the Remembrance Sunday service, our local rector, the Rev. David Oxtoby, chose to read an extremely fitting poem, “It is the Soldier” by Charles M. Province. It is a brief poem, so I will share it with the House because I think it is apposite:
“It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
I humbly submit to the House that when we are talking about veterans, that is a fitting tribute.
As well as those who fell in battle, we must remember those who survive and are now veterans of their military service. The question we must ask is: are we doing enough for these people, to whom we owe so much? The Defence Committee is in the middle of an inquiry into veterans’ mental health, to which the hon. Member for Llanelli referred. It is constructive to compare what we do for the physical rehabilitation of veterans with what we do for their psychological rehabilitation.
For physical rehabilitation, we have world-class facilities—formerly at Headley Court, and now at the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall. In addition, veterans who have lost their legs can now be fitted with the Genium prosthetic—arguably the most advanced prosthetic limb in the world—following a grant of more than £6 million from Her Majesty’s Treasury to equip all those veterans who lost their legs either in Iraq or in Afghanistan. I am proud to say that I had a little to do with that when I served in the Minister of Defence.
In mental health services for veterans, however, we are not world class, and there is much further to go. For example, on Tuesday the Committee took evidence from academics and health professionals from around the UK that revealed, among other things, that in parts of Wales and Northern Ireland, it takes almost a year for a veteran who is identified as suffering from mental illness to begin to receive appropriate treatment. That is bad enough for anyone, but for those who have served their country in uniform, it is completely and utterly unacceptable.
One of the challenges in that sphere arises from what could be described as conflict between two different philosophies—the hon. Lady mentioned this as well. On the one hand, we have the armed forces covenant, the two key principles of which are enshrined in law within the Armed Forces Act 2011. The second key principle is that of special treatment where appropriate, especially for the wounded or bereaved. Under that principle and the broader armed forces covenant, veterans should receive priority treatment under the national health service. However, when one asks the NHS, one gets a very different answer: patients will be treated strictly in accordance with clinical need.
A little while ago, we took evidence from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who opened the debate, and from his opposite number in the Department of Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). Unsurprisingly he backed the covenant and she backed the NHS. We need to resolve that dilemma and we need to do so soon.
As well as the NHS, a number of charities do important work in this field, including the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, SSAFA—the Armed Forces Charity, and Combat Stress. As part of our inquiry, the Committee plans to visit a residential centre run by Combat Stress early next month.
Another charity that does very valuable work is Care after Combat, which was founded in 2014 by Jim Davidson OBE, a notable comedian who has given a great deal of his personal time to an extremely serious subject. Care after Combat provides struggling veterans who have fallen into the prison system with a mentor, who is usually a veteran themselves, which ensures that they have access to someone with understanding in their final year in prison and then their first year outside. The mentor is often able to have conversations that a GP or probation officer simply would not. They are able to spot mental health warning signs and other issues through more regular contact than a clinician would have, and then to report back accordingly. I would like to see more Government support for what that vital charity seeks to achieve, and I ask the Minister to make a note of that.
I regret to say that there is one area in which the Government are letting down veterans very badly indeed, and that is the whole area of “lawfare” and the legal witch hunting of predominantly Army veterans by others for political or financial gain. This applies to veterans who served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) led the Defence Sub-Committee’s inquiry into the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, the revelations of which were so appalling that the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), had the team shut down.
However, the Ministry of Defence then effectively created a son of IHAT, which has continued to inquire into Iraq veterans. We now know that one law firm specialised in bringing cases from Iraq. The ironically named Public Interest Lawyers went so far as to completely fabricate cases against veterans, basically to try to make money out of them. That firm has now mercifully gone bust—no one laments its passing—and its lead lawyer, Mr Phil Shiner, has been struck off.
Other firms acting in this field—not necessarily illegally in any way—have made a great deal of money out of pursuing veterans. One of those is Leigh Day. The Committee hopes to invite representatives of that firm to give evidence to our ongoing inquiry into veterans and “lawfare” to justify their actions to Parliament. If we are successful and they have the courage to appear, I am told that half the Ministry of Defence will take the morning off and come to sit in the Public Gallery—we will need the Boothroyd Room at least. By the way, if they do turn up, they will not receive a fee.
I am afraid that this is also the case in Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland Office and the Police Service of Northern Ireland now propose to go right back to 1968—50 years ago—and reinvestigate every single killing that took place in the course of the troubles. The process would be entirely one-sided, because members of the IRA have been given so-called letters of comfort by Tony Blair, meaning they are effectively off the hook. As far as I am aware, no one who has been given a letter of comfort has ever been successfully prosecuted for terrorist offences. I do not say this lightly, but the Northern Ireland Office, which is one short of its complement today, should be ashamed of itself.
Conversely, there are no letters of comfort for Army veterans, only the prospect of being investigated and, in some cases, hounded for things that happened nearly half a century ago. For instance, an inquest has now begun into killings in Ballymurphy in the 1970s. I understand from press reports that pro-republican lawyers are likely to summon up to 100 soldiers to give evidence. That would take an extremely long time and no doubt cost a vast amount of public money. Let us call this what it is. It is a racket, and it has to stop.
As a result, a couple of weeks ago I and a number of ex-Army colleagues in the House helped to organise a letter from 104 Conservative Members of Parliament, supported by some Opposition Members and 50 peers, including General Lord Dannatt and four previous Chiefs of the Defence Staff. The letter, which we delivered to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street, called on her to put an end to this outrage that has continued on her watch. I am pleased to say that, as a result, we have now been offered a meeting with the Attorney General early next month.
There are now essentially three strands of potential progress. The first is the Defence Committee inquiry, which is ongoing and will probably report sometime in the new year. The second is the specialist team that has been established within the Ministry of Defence by the Defence Secretary—the Minister will be very familiar with it—which is also looking into this issue. The third is the initiative led by the Attorney General, who I am pleased to say has been tasked by the Prime Minister with trying to sort out this problem.
I and other members of the Defence Committee very much hope, perhaps by some combination of these three strands, that we will be able to find a solution so that people who have bravely served their country in uniform will not be hounded in this way in the future. They are people such as Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings, who served several tours on Op Banner in Northern Ireland during the troubles. He is now aged 77, and he is dying of terminal cancer. Unfortunately, it is likely that he will die before his trial for events that were all investigated thoroughly at the time takes place.
There is also the case of Royal Marine David Griffin who, at the age of 77, is facing reinvestigation over an incident in 1972, when someone was killed during an ambush in the middle of the night. The nature of the attack he was under means that Mr Griffin has no idea whether it was he or one of his colleagues who was responsible. An investigation was held 46 years ago, yet Mr Griffin now faces further reinvestigation. And they knew where to find him, because he is a Chelsea Pensioner in the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
We now face a situation in which alleged IRA terrorists, with letters of comfort, are away scot-free—they are laughing at us—while we go after Chelsea Pensioners instead. That is, quite literally, outrageous, and it is happening on this Government’s watch. The public, veterans, serving personnel, their families, over 100 MPs and over 50 peers of the realm all believe the same thing—enough is enough! I call on the Government to stop this outrage, and to stop it quickly.
In summary, the centenary of the armistice is a strong reminder of the vast debt we owe our veterans of the past century, and we should give our veterans and their families the best possible support once they have left the service of the Crown. Although, as the Minister rightly said, there has been good progress in many areas, of which the whole House can be proud, there is also one burning injustice: we now seem to be treating terrorists more favourably than Chelsea Pensioners. I ask the Minister—I believe he is with us in spirit, although he cannot say so—to talk to his colleagues in government and for God’s sake make this nonsense stop.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). Despite having done so on several occasions, I am never quite sure that I get it right. He always gives a forensic speech, and we are never in any doubt about where he stands on, well, pretty much anything actually. I always welcome his contributions.
I start on a somewhat sad note because the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) felt the need to resign from her position as Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. I think that is a loss to the defence team as she was very good to me and my colleagues when we tried to communicate with Ministers at the MOD. Who knows what lies ahead for her? I think that the consensus between us will perhaps end there for now, as the Brexit debate gets more intense.
I am glad this debate is taking place. I was slightly concerned, given the pressures on time and events this morning, that it would not happen. That would have been a great shame, given that we have just had a whole period of remembrance leading up to Remembrance Sunday at the beginning of the week. It was a pleasure to take part in the main centenary event in George Square in Glasgow city centre on Sunday, which was a very moving affair—the city council confirmed it as the largest remembrance event the city has held in the square for a number of years, which shows the desire there is among Glaswegians properly to remember and show thanks to the armed forces and veterans who have passed in previous wars.
As my hon. Friend will know, I was not at George Square in Glasgow because I was at the Nitshill war memorial service. It was the first time there has been a main service there, and there were 300 people in attendance and 34 wreaths laid by community groups. The Friends of Nitshill War Memorial committee should be thanked for all their work over the past five months.
I echo that entirely, and congratulate my hon. Friend on getting that point on the record.
I also had the pleasure of attending the Queen’s Park football club remembrance service. It will surprise anybody who knows me to hear that it was ever a pleasure for me to be at a football stadium, but this was a particularly noteworthy affair. As well as holding a remembrance service for football players who served in the first world war, some of whom did not return home, the club put together the Great War Project, which documented the lives of those who had played for Queen’s Park football club in my constituency, which is the oldest football club in Scotland. It had invited the families of the football players and soldiers from world war one. I even met a constituent of the now departed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who was involved in the Scottish National party in 1945. Needless to say, he cannot support us any more from Tatton, but that goes to show the breadth of people that a remembrance event can bring together. I congratulate everybody at Queen’s Park football club on putting together the Great War Project, and I look forward to visiting the Great War Project at Langside church in my constituency tomorrow night.
Let me return to the veterans strategy. I genuinely welcome this document, which is a good starting point for a serious discussion. I particularly welcome the fact that on the veterans ministerial board we have Ministers from devolved Governments, in particular Graeme Dey, who is the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans in the Scottish Government, and the only veterans Minister in a devolved Government anywhere in the UK—something that other devolved Governments could pick up on. I also welcome to his post the new Scottish Veterans Commissioner, Charles Wallace, who was appointed by the Scottish Government. I think he is the only veterans commissioner in the UK, and he will become a veteran on Tuesday. I had the pleasure of meeting him earlier this week—I think he was in front of the Defence Committee on Tuesday—and I am sure that all Scottish Members wish him well in his new role.
There are obviously many crossovers with devolved competencies as far as supporting veterans is concerned, just as there are with local government. I welcome the £1.3 million announced by the Scottish Government for the veterans fund to support veterans organisations across Scotland. I welcome the £10 million of additional funding for veterans with mental health needs. I also welcome the fact that the Scottish Government changed the rules to ensure that the war disablement pension was exempt from income assessments.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved in organising remembrance events across South Lanarkshire, including South Lanarkshire Council headquarters which lit up its own building to commemorate the anniversary. My constituent Thomas Stuart White from Carluke currently receives 70% of his war disablement pension and a lifetime award of disability living allowance. However, he was only granted a three-year personal independence payment and he feels it is unjust to veterans that this does not recognise his commitment and his public service.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that case. I encourage her to write, if she has not already done so, to the armed forces and veterans Minister, whom I have certainly found to be attentive in dealing with such cases.
We all have to realise the vast change that will happen in the veterans community over the next 10, 15 and 20 years. There is a whole generation associated with the second world war—we are very low on numbers associated with the first world war—who will be dead in a few years’ time. Our veterans community will be younger and more diverse in terms of men and women and its ethnic make-up at time goes by. Any new strategy we implement has to take cognisance of those changes. The expectations of veterans and ex-forces personnel will change as well. They will expect more from the Government and more from local government. They will expect better, joined-up service delivery from local and national Government.
There are different models around the world that we can learn from, and we should not be afraid to ask some pretty big questions. For example, does it need to be the Ministry of Defence that is responsible for veterans’ services? In the United States, there is an entirely separate Government Department for veterans’ services. New Zealand has a separate Government Department. In South Korea, a veterans council is responsible for the implementation of veterans’ services and strategies. We know—let us be charitable— how stretched the Ministry of Defence is at this particular juncture, so perhaps we could be asking these types of big questions and question whether the models and the set-up we have really will serve people best in the future. We could learn from the Danish model when it comes to supporting serving members of the armed forces who go on to become veterans and ex-forces.
Most of the Members here in the Chamber regularly attend debates on defence. They will know that the Scottish National party has called for the establishment of an armed forces federation. In fact, we introduced a Bill to that effect. I know many Members do not agree with that, but I am not convinced we are serving them well at the moment. Members of the armed forces do not have a statutory body to advocate on their behalf. They really just rely on Members of Parliament. I hate to point it out, but when one looks at the numbers who are here today less than a week on from Remembrance Sunday, we have to think that perhaps Members of Parliament are not the best ones to always rely on—exceptional circumstances do exist, of course. But why can veterans not have a body, similar to the Police Federation, which has a role in statute to argue for better terms and conditions for them and their families while they are in the armed forces, when they leave the armed forces, and, as others have mentioned, for that crucial transition phase.
We need to better codify the role of the veterans champion. Sadly, about 10 minutes after the Minister got to his feet, Glasgow’s veterans champion, who was in the Gallery, had to dash off to Euston to get his train back to Glasgow. In Scotland, we have 32 veterans champions, one of whom is the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). There are 32 different people doing this across Scotland—I am not sure how many there are in the rest of the UK—and there is not any real code to say what their job is or what their responsibilities are. Someone might be in Glasgow, where we have a really active and excellent veterans champion who operates within the city council—within the local authority—but then they might cross the boundary into another local authority and find that that is not the case.
I get the feeling that part of why we do not codify this is that it will end up costing more money, but that cannot be a reason not to do so. I speak to veterans champions who are full of the best will in the world but who are not entirely sure where their role fits within the council. In Glasgow, for example, our veterans champion is not an elected member of the council, which I think is a good thing. It gives them freer rein, but in my understanding, in most local authorities they tend to be Lord Provosts—the Scottish equivalent of the town mayors that exist in England and other parts of the UK. It is absolutely a worthy role, but exactly what the role of a veterans champion is, and is not, needs to be tightened up.
I come to the issue of suicide among veterans. I agree with the Minister that we cannot allow the myth to be perpetuated of the broken warrior, as it were, but at the same time, we cannot ignore failings in the system. On the issue of suicide, it is my understanding—I think the Minister said this at the Dispatch Box and in comments to the media at the weekend—that there will be moves to start recording suicides among those who have served in the armed forces but who no longer serve.
Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Justice and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government asking how this would work. My understanding of English law, limited though it is, is that this would have to happen through coroners in England—I think that coroners exist in Wales and Northern Ireland as well, but we do not have coroners in Scotland, so presumably it would fall to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service there. Where there are changes to that in England or Scotland, I hope that we can do this in a joined-up way and that we ultimately get to the place we all want to be, where we have proper figures so that we can better understand and tackle these issues.
In summing up—I am conscious that other Members want to get in—I welcome the publication of the strategy and the fact that we are having this debate in Government time. There is a debate next week on the armed forces covenant as well, and that is a good thing. It is good to see that there is now some pretty strong parliamentary impetus behind this, but I say to Members here and Ministers: let us not be beholden to any sacred cows. Let us think big. Let us be bold and let us all work together to make each of our communities the best place possible to be a veteran.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and I thank him for his kind and generous words. He can be assured that while I may not be in government, I will continue to believe that defence has nothing to do with party and everything to do with the nation and those who have served us, and that all of us have a responsibility to them. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be their advocate when necessary—be that the families, those serving or those who have left the service—and to support them by lobbying Ministers in whichever Department we are required to.
It is a real pleasure to stand here in a debate in Government time about veterans—those who have served. When I arrived here in 2015, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) helped me to understand that there had been a loss of impetus from the Government in speaking about military matters in the Chamber. A number of us have taken that as a challenge over the past three years, and it is fantastic that our incredibly passionate Minister, who took on this role last year, has driven forward the determination to have these conversations more widely and to push out there the issue of those who serve and have served.
I want to mention a very special remembrance event last weekend in Berwick—that most northern point of England. Twenty-five of the most northern parishes came together in Berwick parish church to lay wreaths. We held a vigil on Saturday night. The wreaths were placed in the shape of a cross in front of the altar, which was moving in itself, then four of my young cadets from the Army Cadet Force came and stood at each corner of the cross. They stood there from 7 pm until 11 pm, without moving, as the names of all those who had served in world war one and world war two were read out slowly by an extraordinary group of people, the representatives of each parish, old and young. There were many there who were new to their parishes, and many whose families had been part of that community for 100 years.
It was profoundly moving to see those young men and women, whom I know well because I spend a lot of time with them, standing to attention and respecting not only those who had died but the armed forces. I know that three of them want to enter the armed forces themselves and take on the extraordinary challenge that is faced by all members of the forces. It means a really exciting career and learning exceptional skills, but it also means a willingness to put their lives on the line if necessary to defend us and our nation. That will never cease to amaze me, and to fill me with the utmost respect for every single one of them.
When I set up the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant when I was first elected, I wanted it to speak up for armed forces families. The covenant put something very good into law, but I began to discover things accidentally, as so often happens when a person becomes an MP—we discover all sorts of subjects with which we have had no particular relationship before. Military families came and talked to me about their struggles and the issues in their lives, from school places to housing to medical assistance. You name it, they were all there: the challenges of moving around, the challenges of not having a base and the feeling that the system could not support them.
Three years on, it is really exciting to see a strategy for veterans that has a wrap-around effect on their families as well. I pay tribute to the Minister, who I know has battled with the system to get it to where it is now, and also to his team. I have worked with many of them over the past year, and I know that they have put in an enormous amount of work to reach the beginnings of a strategy that will be incredibly supportive to all the families.
I want to raise a number of issues about which my knowledge has grown over the last three years, and on which I think we can make progress in the years ahead. One of them is the question of money. Families who are seeking support in relation to a particular issue—as well as veterans, and, in some cases, those who are still serving—say, “It is so complicated. There are so many charities. I don’t know where to go. It is very difficult. How do I start?”
For a long time I worked in the north-east with a group called the Community Foundation. That extraordinary organisation, which has now spread across the country, originated in the United States. Regional charities’ finances are held together in a pot so that the money that they all hold can be used in a better way. Members of a central board can direct those who come seeking support to the right charity, so that an individual who is probably in distress, or is battling other issues, does not have to go hunting for the right support. There are more than 3,000 charities, many of which hold very small amounts of money and have a particular focus. A charity may have been set up by a family who had lost someone who served, for instance.
If we could draw charities together to work in a collaborative, central way so that people seeking support could go to a central point and a board would direct them, that would relieve them of a great deal of stress. There is so much support out there—it may not be in the part of the country where we live, but that does mean that it does not provide the right specialist care for the person we are seeking to support. I will leave that suggestion with the Minister, but I should be happy to follow it up and see whether we can have a more cohesive conversation with charities. I have spoken to some of them about that already.
The veterans gateway, which was set up last year, is a great start in that it provides people with an initial central point to go to. During its first year it has responded to many questions, from “Where can I get my medals replaced?” to “My husband is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I do not know where to go.” An extraordinary range of questions have been sent down that telephone line. The team are working to build the network and signpost people in the right direction, but the question I would ask is, are we really tracking whether the right outcomes are achieved for those who call? I am not sure that we are there yet.
Sometimes there may be an easy question for which there is an easy answer—big tick, it is sorted. That is fantastic. But I remain concerned that people are signposted to a charity that ought to be able to help, but no one from the gateway is then checking that they have actually received that help. So they may end up back in the ether, still struggling to find the support that they need. I ask the Minister to set out—or to consider, if this is not being done—how we can have a real tracking system so that the outcome of the support the gateway is supposed to provide is actually achieved. Some of the cases will be difficult, and will not simply entail making a direct phone call to the next person, with the solution then being provided.
That brings us on to a wider question about the MOD’s responsibility to look after veterans. That question has frustrated me, because one reason why the covenant was such a great thing for David Cameron to put into law in 2011 was that that is not only the MOD’s responsibility. Although the MOD does of course have a duty of care to those who have served and have needs afterwards, that should be a cross-Government project. The veterans board was a great start, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) for battling to get it into the manifesto so that it could come to fruition at the end of last year, but I am not sure that every other Department understands the vital contribution that they each make, because veterans and their families are affected by their work just as everybody else is.
If the covenant is to be real, we must realise that we have committed as a nation to giving veterans and their families support without question. That is what the covenant means to me: it means that we value them for the rest of their lives. As the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said, for many of our veterans now, that is going to be a very long time—they are going to live long lives with challenging issues and disabilities that will appear later down the line, especially mental health problems. We see Northern Ireland veterans now coming out with severe mental health problems, 20 or 30 years after they served.
As a public services community we must make sure we are ready to pick up these issues. I worry that we are always thinking, “They were soldiers once, so it’s the MOD’s responsibility.” That is not good enough; that is not what the covenant should be. I concur with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that we should consider taking the covenant to a higher statutory level, rather than simply having it setting out its vision. The MOD’s job is to defend us; that is its purpose—to be prepared for war, to have the deterrents to try to prevent war from happening, but to have soldiers, sailors and airmen ready to take us to war if necessary. That is the MOD’s job, whereas the job of the NHS is to look after us if we are sick, and the council’s job is to provide people who need a house with housing and to look after education services. All those issues affect veterans and their families, because they are participant members of our society for the rest of their lives. So we must continue to question whether we leave the responsibility for the covenant in statutory terms in the hands of the MOD, or whether the Government and Parliament should consider taking it to a higher level.
I receive many letters such as the following one, which is from a serviceman’s wife, because families contact me all the time. I apologise if my voice breaks while reading it, as it is not an easy letter to read. But I will read it anyway, because it illustrates the issues we are struggling with:
“I write to you to tell you of my experience of living with a husband who has PTSD following his tour in Afghanistan in 2010.
This weekend may have potentially seen the end of our marriage and there is a real risk my husband will self-harm to end his life. His behaviour has caused me to ask him to leave. He has gone to his Grandma’s and my understanding is his parents have contacted the correct health authorities to get the help that he needs. They have moved faster than any of our local authorities have here. He has previously presented at his local GP who told him to self-refer to a local mental health charity. I find it shocking that people have to “self-refer” when they have a mental health condition. The temptation is to just go home and do nothing, brush it under the carpet, do it another day, ultimately delaying treatment.
He has received community CBT and EMDR from people who have absolutely no experience in dealing with conflict trauma. The hospital he presented at yesterday said the treatment he has received has been a sticking-plaster no more, no less, and that he is seriously ill.
This has been ongoing for eight years. For eight years I have had to live with his financial mismanagement and deception, which has taken a sinister turn over the weekend. His actions are not compatible with a stable marriage and for the sake of my children and I, I have asked him to leave to seek treatment.
I have never received any support from the military as to how I deal/manage with my husband’s PTSD. My husband likewise hasn’t had any contact from the Army. I just cannot comprehend this lack, and total disregard, for their duty of care.
He was medically discharged for physical injuries he sustained during that tour in 2014. He served in Helmand as a platoon commander leading young men at a young age in an area that, without exception, was the most dangerous place in the world. How can the army not follow up with serving members of the forces to check they are ok when people have died on patrols that they have led? People have lost limbs, had spinal fractures, have been injured in an IED explosion themselves. How can they not check that the families have the support that they need? How can they risk more potential casualties in the form of suicide? I am alone in facing this. The government cannot delegate their duty of care to charities. Relying on people to approach them.
My husband talks a good game. On any vague assessment he would present as healthy. He hid his physical injuries for 2 years as he felt others had it worse. This ended his career. He will likely be wheelchair bound at 60. In terms of his physical injuries, his Regiment have utterly failed in their duty of care. He has never been treated at any of the army rehabilitation centres because a doctor only spotted the physical injuries 2 years post tour when he presented for something else. He didn’t fall into the category of ‘conflict wounded’. He has had to rely on community treatment and has always had to push for his own treatment, paying privately in each instance. It just baffles me how this can all happen. His Regiment, Army and the government have abandoned him and us. Our local mental health services are woefully inadequate to deal with such complex injuries and I am not a qualified mental health expert! My greatest fear is that this letter will be included one day as an exhibit in a bundle”—[Interruption.]
The hon. Lady is very passionately telling the story of someone she knows very well. That example is replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom, and every one of us has encountered people that that has happened to. I want to support her in making her comments, and to reassure her that everyone in the House understands exactly what she is saying.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he is very kind. This Chamber is the most wonderful thing when it works in a collegiate fashion.
The serviceman’s wife finishes by saying:
“My greatest fear is that this letter will be included one day as an exhibit in a bundle collated for the Coroner. I have no voice but I know that this cannot continue.”
I get far too many of those letters, and I imagine other colleagues do as well. We do our best, but the challenge is to provide these people with a voice. The Minister cannot independently battle his way through the system and make every Department suddenly behave as it should for these families. I have been raising this matter for a while, and he will not be surprised to hear it again.
The covenant cannot work solely by virtue of kindness, consideration and everybody out there saying that it is a good thing, perhaps without understanding exactly what that responsibility means or rising to the challenge of prioritising where it is required. At the moment, the covenant is a carrot. It is a positive, uplifting and encouraging message of support from the Government to those who have served, but that is not enough if families are having to experience years of frustration. The military do not ask for help—that is an extraordinary phenomenon. I have an RAF base and a large Army base in my patch, and no one there ever complains about anything. I hear about problems from a vicar or from a schoolteacher, and then I go looking to help to solve them. They never come to ask for help. They will battle on, because they are a can-do community that will try to find its own solutions. They have an extraordinary gift of resilience. As a community, they look after each other because that is what we ask them to do in times of war, but the families cannot always do that.
I believe that we need to create a system that involves some kind of covenant ombudsman. We have a parliamentary ombudsman to go to when nothing else has worked, and we need a covenant ombudsman as well. It should be an organisation that sits outside any Department and that is empowered by Parliament to have a voice and to fight wherever it is required for each family. It cannot be right that we receive letters such as the one I read, that we cannot solve those problems and that such families have had to wait so many years before they feel it is okay to stick their heads above the parapet and cry, “Help!”
I leave that with the Minister. It is not a new request, but it is one we need to drive forward. The carrot mentality is just not enough to ensure that families get the support they need when they need it.
It is a real pleasure to follow the impassioned contribution from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who is a huge advocate for veterans and, indeed, the Royal Marines. Commitment to and passion for those men and women serving in and leaving the world’s finest armed forces can surely be found on both sides of the House. As the Member of Parliament for the home of the Royal Navy, that is heartening for me to see.
I will keep my remarks brief this afternoon. Along with many Members of this House, I spent last week at remembrance services, selling poppies in my constituency. Needless to say, we in Portsmouth were again profoundly moved by and deeply proud of the bravery and sacrifice of service personnel past and present. Pride in our armed forces comes naturally to my city. As the home of the Royal Navy, we know personally of the remarkable courage and expertise in service of those generations that have fought for our country. That is why I am so passionate about ensuring that our Government, our public services and the economy work to support them during their service and beyond, during their transition back to civilian life. So I thank the Minster for his statement today; it was hugely helpful to hear.
This is not a party political issue. Personally, I could not care less from which party or place support for our veterans comes, so long as it is comprehensive and generous. This strategy is at least a good start—it certainly makes lighter reading than today’s withdrawal agreement. I await the results of the consultation with great interest, and I anticipate serious policy commitments. Specific and effective policy is needed because, as has been mentioned by my colleagues, the challenges facing veterans are serious and deserve a response of equal weight.
The Minister may recall from my correspondence with him my support for the armed forces covenant, and I am proud that Portsmouth City Council has recently received the gold award. Equally, however, he may recall my urging him to give some teeth to the covenant and for it to go further.
The same could be said about this strategy and the Government’s support for veterans generally. I wholeheartedly endorse each and every one of the key themes set out by the Minister’s Department. Co-ordination of services, data collection and proper recognition for our veterans—these are all things I have been campaigning for and absolutely support. However, to be realised, they require timely action from Government. That is especially true of the shocking lack of worth our veterans feel is placed in them by the wider population. According to a heart-breaking report by SSAFA, 62% feel undervalued by society. I was pleased to see that recognition of veterans was a key strand in the veterans strategy. I also greatly welcome plans to introduce an official veterans ID card, and perhaps the Minister could update the House later on progress on that.
It is clear that action to improve life for veterans does not have to be hugely costly or complex to be effective. I will confine my remarks to an issue that is not only particularly pertinent, but something whose treatment it would be simple to improve. That issue is mental health, and specifically data collection on suicide rates.
I should say from the start that we should in no way stigmatise our armed forces personnel. The majority of ex-servicemen and women adapt very well to civilian life. The skills required in the forces are unique and an extremely valuable addition to the existing talents that those in our services often hold. As the Minister and other Members of this place can attest, life in the forces can preface great success in civilian and even public life. That does not mean we can afford to lose sight of those in our armed forces who do need support and care.
The UK is almost unique in not requiring coroners to mark an individual as a veteran. As a result, only one of the 98 coroners in England and Wales does so. That is something almost all our allies do, including Canada, America and Australia, because it makes sense. This is important and useful data about and for the veteran community.
How can we possibly go about solving this issue if we do not know the scale of the problem? The Ministry of Defence currently puts the tri-services suicide rate at eight per 100,000, which is notably lower than the 15.5 per 100,000 rate that the Office for National Statistics reports among the general male population. I have no doubt that everyone in this House would welcome that state of affairs but, put simply, significant research from the Royal British Legion and my own conversations with the veteran community suggest that it does not reflect reality. The fact is that we do not know for sure, which is exactly my point.
In answer to my written question of 8 October on the plans that the MOD and the Ministry of Justice have for introducing such a recording duty on coroners, the Minister said he had had no such conversations with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps he could say today whether he might consider introducing a coroner recording duty as part of the veterans strategy. The move would fit well with the Government’s aim, as stated in yesterday’s document, of enhancing the collection, use and analysis of data across sectors to effectively address the needs of veterans. I believe the measure would have broad support from the public and the military, including from General Sir Dave Richards. I urge the Government to listen and to capitalise on this remarkably simple but invaluable step.
I also pay tribute to the campaigning of the Portsmouth News and the Sunday People, and specifically to the dedication of Portsmouth veteran Stephen James, who has developed a fantastic peer-to-peer chat app, All Call Signs, to connect former services personnel, allowing them to support each other directly when mental health difficulties arise.
We owe services personnel far better than to turn a blind eye. Inevitably, the data itself would not help us to reduce the number of tragic incidents, but it would be invaluable in bettering our understanding of the issue, which is crucial if we are to tackle it. Again, I encourage the Minister to incorporate this commitment to veterans.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), who is clearly a champion of the personnel who serve or are based in his constituency.
Most veterans and ex-services personnel have a positive experience of military service and many, like one of my sons-in-law, gain skills and experience that benefit them as they migrate to civilian life. They form lifelong bonds with their service colleagues in many cases, and it was poignant at the recent Remembrance Day services in both Ayr and Cumnock to witness for myself the strong bonds among the veterans and ex-services personnel who came together to remember their fallen friends.
Despite the morning weather in Ayr, it was a pleasure to see so many of the young generation turn out on that Sunday—I am sure it was the same in Glasgow—and that has to be applauded and welcomed. I thank Rev. David Gemmell and the poppy knitters of the auld kirk of Ayr for a wonderful display. The auld kirk was bedecked in colourful poppies that enriched the service that day.
For some veterans, however, their military career was not such a positive experience, and whether or not the root causes of the mental health issues experienced by services personnel are a direct result of that service, it is crucial that veterans receive proper support during and after their military service. I am pleased to see that support is foremost in this veterans strategy.
The UK charity Combat Stress operates the wonderful Hollybush House facility in my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, affording support and sanctuary for former members of the British armed forces who are suffering from mental health conditions such as PTSD. Clearly, treatment is free of charge to all veterans, and, most important, it is provided by a dedicated team of professionals based there. For the small minority who do not immediately adapt to civilian life as they migrate from their service days and who lose their way momentarily or, as sometimes sadly happens, for a lifetime, the veterans strategy and veterans gateway services at Hollybush House are to be welcomed. Together with the new veterans units, they will improve the response for those in need.
Additionally, there are charities such as Care after Combat, whose stated aim is to change people’s lives for the better. It is working with the NHS, a great player in assisting our veterans, to support veterans who have fallen foul of the justice system in an effort to reduce reoffending. Unforgotten Forces comprises 15 leading organisations, led by Poppy Scotland, which together afford enhanced support to veterans and ex-service personnel aged over 65 and to their families in Scotland. That is to be welcomed and applauded. Clearly, wide and able support is available in the voluntary sector, and the key word is “voluntary”; many of these people give of their time freely to assist our veterans and ex-service personnel.
I am pleased that the Government have, in this strategy, outlined what more can be done centrally to support veterans. Apart from the invaluable armed forces covenant, which has been discussed and to which at least 3,000 organisations have now signed up, veterans will also benefit from the Department for Work and Pensions’ Disability Confident scheme, and the Career Transition Partnership has successfully supported some 200,000 veterans into new careers after their service since its inception some 20 years ago.
This Government have done a great deal to support veterans, but we cannot be complacent, as the task is not at all complete. As I have previously mentioned in this House, I very much welcome the extra funds announced in the Budget to support veterans, which are in addition to the funds the Government previously committed to support the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. I also welcome the consultation mentioned by the Minister, which is soon to get under way, but we have to pay attention to the outcome of that consultation. There is no point in having a strategy that is simply put on a shelf; we have to act as a Government and as a nation to ensure that what we learn from that consultation is applied effectively.
I welcome the scope of this strategy, which will ensure that our veterans receive the support they need well into the future. Should a veteran stretch their hand out for help or assistance, this nation must grasp that hand firmly and give them that assistance, which they so richly deserve. I wish to personally thank those whose military service has protected me, my family, my constituents and indeed this country over many years.
It is a pleasure to follow colleagues in this very moving debate about critical issues facing veterans and, in particular, to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). His area shares a great affinity with Glasgow, because it is of course the traditional home of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the Glasgow and Ayrshire Regiment, which now forms part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, as its second battalion. I had the great pleasure of visiting 2 Scots at Glencorse barracks in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), where I had discussions on a number of issues facing serving personnel and members of the regimental family who are now veterans.
As of July, I count myself as a veteran, having served 12 years as a reservist in the Royal Regiment of Scotland. I am very proud to wear the regimental tie today, just as I did on Sunday, when I went to George Square, as I have done for several years, to join many of my friends at the cenotaph to remember our friends who have suffered life-changing injuries and, in my case, a good friend who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. That is a moment for us not only to reflect, but to get together to have a good old time—there is a social aspect. For many people, particularly those who have worn the uniform, Remembrance Day is about not just solemn remembrance, but having a bit of a laugh, which is always good. We did get on to talking in great detail about many of our friends who have suffered, and in the past few months alone, the Royal Regiment of Scotland veterans have taken it upon themselves to set up a Facebook group to try to help each other.
It has been eye-opening to see the difficulties that many people are going through but which they often cannot make clear to their comrades. There is a culture, particularly in the Army, of not talking about these things. Instead, people have traditionally been told to man up, get on with it and pull themselves together. In the past, it was an admission of weakness for someone to say that they had difficulties, so it is great that people feel that there is now a safe space in which to make those vulnerabilities clear to their friends and to seek help.
In that spirit, I welcome the thrust of the veterans strategy, particularly the cross-cutting factors that have been identified, which chime with what I would like to see happen. However, I am concerned that the document is too high level and that there is not enough understanding of the intended outcomes. There is a broad intent, which is laudable, but a lot of details about how it is to be delivered are lacking. The term used in the Army is “mission command”: beginning with a general intent, but then building up a fuller picture of what is to be delivered on the ground. It is ironic in an organisation with an effective command-and-control system built into its DNA that when it comes to supporting our veterans, that seems to fall apart and the same rigor is not applied. I would like that to be addressed as part of the further development of the strategy. This is crucial for collaboration between organisations and the co-ordination of veterans services. The urgency burns through and needs to be gripped.
A lot of charities are doing excellent work and many have been mentioned today. A great example in the city of Glasgow and the wider area is the Erskine Hospital, which was founded over 100 years ago by one of the Yarrow family whose son was killed on the battlefields of the first world war. So riven with guilt was he that he formed a charity along with William Macewen, one of the leading surgeons in Glasgow at the time, to create the first proper prosthetic limbs to help those who had suffered life-changing injuries in the first world war. The charity continues to help veterans of all ages to this day.
We have to recognise that the demography of our veterans is changing. The Army has downsized by around 20,000 regular soldiers in the last five years alone. That is a significant outflow of people, many of whom will have served in conflict zones—very intense conflict zones at that—and those people will have very particular and urgent needs that need to be catered for. I do not feel that there is any sort of infrastructure to deal with those specific requirements, however, and that needs to be dealt with.
I have spoken about this next issue several times in the last few months, because many of my friends and people I know personally have been affected. Indeed, we lost four Jocks from the Royal Regiment of Scotland in the space of two months, in July and August this year, which is a terrible suicide rate. Indeed, it is estimated that over 50 veterans have taken their own lives in the last year alone. We have to recognise the true scale of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) talked about data collection, and we need to get a grip of that. Other countries have shown the way on how to deliver it, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) hinted at. We need more robust infrastructure that assists in identifying veterans so that we can then help them.
Often, when we think of a veteran, we think of someone who has heroically served their country and then left on good terms to go off, be of good character and deliver in civilian life. Technically, anyone who has served one day in uniform is a veteran, and many will be discharged in difficult circumstances, such as for drugs problems or reasons of chaos in their personal lives. They will leave on unhappy and difficult terms, and simply to cast them out and not give them the right support is to fail them.
I think of the four Jocks who have taken their own lives in the last couple of months. In many cases, they had already reached out for support. I spoke to Combat Stress about members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland who had sought help for PTSD. Many had identified themselves. Indeed, one of the men who tragically took their life, Jamie Davies, had been recording video diaries of his experiences. They are haunting to watch now in the knowledge that he ended up taking his own life. His descriptions of the difficulties he encountered are harrowing. To think that we all failed him is something we have to take cognisance of.
The sooner we get the strategy robustly developed and delivered meaningfully, the better. We cannot simply have these high-level aspirations; we need a robust plan that actually tells us in root-and-branch detail what we will do differently. That is what we need to understand.
The charities do a great job, but many people who go to charities, and particularly veterans, get some assistance—they might get cognitive behavioural therapy, for example—but find that it does not meet their needs. It is often a box-ticking exercise—“Right, we’ve consulted this veteran. He’s presented himself and we’ve dealt with it”—that might not resolve the issue, and there is no ongoing support once the course of treatment has finished. They then fall through the net and find no way out other than to take their own lives. That is the tragedy that is happening.
It is not that we do not know that these people are there. We know they are there, but we are just not robust enough in helping them, which is why we need to look into having a structure that takes its inspiration from the command-and-control structure that is embedded in the armed forces so that we can robustly deal with these issues. My view is that a caseworker ought to be appointed to every veteran who leaves the armed forces as a single, consistent point of contact to whom they can turn, regardless of the length of time since they left. That would be an ideal structure, because veterans often fall into the gaps between different charities and organisations. They have to go through the same history and issues, and end up overwhelmed with frustration. They disengage from the process and find themselves lost—and then they are lost to their friends and family as well, when they take their own lives. That is the true carnage that is being caused and its cost.
We do not know the true scale of the situation—the people we identify may be just the tip of the iceberg. Veterans who find themselves in prisons will not identify as veterans. Veterans who find themselves with mental health problems, drug addiction or alcohol addiction will not identify as veterans, because they do not want to embarrass their friends—they do not want to embarrass their cap badge. We have to get a grip of this issue, on a number of fronts.
I welcome the strategy in broad strokes. The cross-cutting factors that have been identified—improvements in data on the veterans community, public perception and understanding, recognition, and, most importantly, collaboration and co-ordination—are laudable, but that does not go nearly far enough. We have a crisis on our hands in this country, and it is an ever-looming one, as more than 100,000 people in our country have served in the theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan in Operations Telic and Herrick. If we do not help them, an absolute epidemic of mental health problems will be visited upon us. The needs of the world war two generation are different from the needs of the generation—my generation—that has served in conflict zones in the past 15 or 20 years. We have to get an understanding of how to tailor services to their needs. I welcome the Government’s strategy but, echoing the sentiments expressed from the Opposition Front Bench, we need to go much further to get a grip and to deliver for our service personnel—we owe them nothing less.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and particularly to follow the powerful speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), given the personal tales we have just heard. He was right to say that it is very welcome that people can now talk about their experiences. An awful definition was used a century ago when there was the idea that people who had seen absolutely appalling horrors of war somehow “lacked moral fibre” because they had finally broken after several years of unimaginable experiences. Nowadays, we recognise that there are some things that would break anyone. At the end of “Blackadder Goes Forth”, there are those poignant last three minutes of humour in the most dark of situations. Captain Blackadder says that he pretended to be mad and then realised
“who would have noticed another madman around here”—
they would have to be mad to be in that trench and in that war. What the hon. Gentleman said was very welcome, and it was also very welcome to see him, as someone who has served our country, wearing his regimental tie proudly.
I welcome the overall tone of the debate, starting with the Minister’s speech. I pay tribute to the speeches made by the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who spoke on behalf of their respective parties. That tone has continued right the way through the debate. It is welcome to have debates on veterans’ issues to ensure that veterans have a voice in Parliament and that their needs are heard here, and that is important because of how things have changed. If we had been having this debate 50 years ago, virtually everyone in this Chamber would have seen action in world war two or world war one. At that time, well over 90% of Members of Parliament were male, and virtually all would have been of an age that meant they had faced conscription in either world war one or world war two, or national service and the Korean war afterwards. The whole of society was full of people—obviously men, at that time—who had seen heavy combat and heavy action.
What really brought the situation home to me was the challenge faced by veterans coming back from Afghanistan. Those individuals came back to a society in which, actually, most people had not had the same experience as them. At a dinner of the armed forces all-party group, I heard a commander say that the casualty rate of his battalion in Afghanistan had been the same as that of one of its predecessor battalions in the Somme offensive. Thanks to modern medicine, however, not so many people died, as many great interventions were made to keep people alive. Fundamentally, however, the wider impact of being killed or seriously injured in Afghanistan was roughly the same as that of the Somme. That really brought it home to me, but a person who comes back from Afghanistan is not returning to a community where every man in the street has had the experience of being either at that battle or another one, which might make them feel very isolated and alone.
That is why, in such debates, I like to pay tribute to the Royal British Legion. I certainly welcomed the comments from the shadow Secretary of State for Defence about the individual member of her party, and it is worth saying that there are many members of the trade union and Labour movements who have died for this country. They have worn our uniform and served to ensure that we can live in the democracy that we have today. I do not think that we should take the views of one—to put it bluntly—idiot and try to paint that as the views of an entire movement that has sacrificed so much to protect our democracy. Clement Attlee, of course, stood shoulder to shoulder with Winston Churchill when this country went through its darkest hours back in the 1940s, and he was clear that appeasement and surrender were not an option in the fight against the evil that was National Socialism.
I particularly want to pay tribute to my local RBL, which not just works with veterans, but provides that link between the military, veterans and the wider community—the community of people who might never have served, but want to support their veterans. I shall start by looking at the work of Paignton Royal British Legion, which is one of two branches in my area. It is led very well by its chairman, John Kavanagh, who is a veteran himself. He takes great pride in his military service and in leading the team. What the branch did for the centenary came from a fitting idea from its secretary, Donna Fortune, about bringing to life the war memorial, which lists the names of 224 sons of the town who volunteered in world war one and never came back. The idea was to have a candle symbolising the light that went out in the first world war, and each candle bore the name of someone on the memorial.
On Remembrance Sunday, as we marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice, young people from the town took a candle from the local parish church, which many of those who fought in the war would have known as it is still pretty much as it was at that time, and took it to the memorial to lay it there. What was particularly fitting was that these young men and girls were about 15, 16 and 17—the age of those who went off to fight. That served as a reminder to many people because sometimes when we go to remembrance parades, we look at older veterans. We therefore might make the mistake of thinking that people who fought in these wars were older, yet the reality is that those who lost their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice were young men from the town who volunteered, went off to do their bit and then never came home. For me, it was very moving to see the memorial in the evening with the candles lit as a reminder of those sons of Paignton who gave their all so that we can have the free Parliament that we have today. I also wish to pay tribute to Don McKechnie, the poppy appeal organiser for the Paignton branch, who has worked so diligently on this year’s successful appeal.
The other RBL branch in my constituency is in Torquay. Its secretary, Arthur Christian, who is a veteran, combines running a local estate agency with supporting the branch. His team worked very hard to produce a superb tribute to the centenary on Torquay seafront on Sunday, which was one of the largest events that we have had in a long time. Back in July, a new standard was dedicated at the local church, and that was specifically done so that it could be paraded at Great Pilgrimage 90, which marked the 90th anniversary of veterans of world war one plus families who had lost loved ones in those famous battles going out to see the cemetery. For those colleagues who have not done this, I can say that it is quite thought provoking to stand at Tyne Cot and look back down at what is called Passchendaele ridge.
It is not much of a ridge, more of a low incline in the middle of flat land. It is where the defenders were ready and waiting and from where they could see into the town of Ypres and see our forces advancing, as those men attempted to assault positions on that ridge. For many, it was where they lost their lives. Sadly, many were not found or, if they were, could no longer be identified by the end of the war.
Veterans are an amazing part of our community today, and the hon. Member for Glasgow South and the Minister were absolutely right. It is easy in these sorts of debates to talk, rightly, about certain issues that affect veterans, but we should also remember that they are an amazing part of our local communities. Eighty per cent of working-age veterans are in employment and three quarters own their own home, either outright or with a loan. Many are doing brilliant jobs, using the skills they learned in the military in their careers. Without them, our society would be much poorer, not just because of the technical skills they learned in the Army, Navy or Air Force, but because of the ethos of service and putting nation before self that they bring from the military into whatever their career is.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I have met with Care after Combat and heard about its work with those for whom, sadly, civvy street is not working and who have ended up in jail. It is concerning that an estimated 3,500 former servicemen are currently in jail. At the moment, Care after Combat can reach one in 10 of them, and its work has an impact. First-year reoffending rates among those it has engaged with are much lower, and when they are no longer incarcerated, that is a good outcome for them and the taxpayer.
I was pleased to see the Secretary of State also attend that event and see that commitment and support. I hope that we can hear more from the Minister in his winding-up speech about what support will be available and what is happening across Government to ensure linked-up support. It is not about education; it is about engaging with veterans when they are in prison to ensure that they can come out to a home, to support and, particularly if they have engaged in such a scheme, potentially to find employment.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, I also want to touch on veterans and lawfare. I used to be a criminal defence lawyer. Our armed forces are there to uphold the rule of law, and not one member of our armed forces community would wish to see a situation in which the armed forces were above the law. However, it is clear that the balance of investigatory effort and attention paid to matters of the past, particularly in Northern Ireland, has been completely disproportionate. Veterans who were investigated by the relevant authorities at the time now face having to relive potentially difficult experiences decades later. These are incidents where little if any new evidence is likely to be produced, where many of the witnesses will have passed away or where, bluntly, what witnesses may be available might not be the most impartial individuals and where what they wish to say might have little probity or value.
I know that the Minister is committed to finding a solution to this. I know, too, that that is reflected by the Secretary of State, and it is welcome to hear about Attorney General’s work, but I know from my criminal justice background that we have always had the principle of double jeopardy in our system. It is a good principle, and although these cases might not have been taken to court for a formal verdict that would trigger that legal principle, perhaps it could be extended into this area, so that, unless something staggeringly new comes out, where things were clearly investigated and considered at the time, they should not be matters that we look to reopen.
For veterans, like all others, housing is an issue. As we look to tackle our housing problems more generally, this is an area that could benefit veterans and certainly make a difference for them. It is right that we can be very proud of our veterans community—certainly in Torbay we are very proud of them. There is support for them and work is put together, but it can always be better and taken further.
I appreciate debates and I always welcome the opportunity to take part in them. I am conscious of the time and of the fact that we have a rare opportunity to hear from my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I know is a passionate advocate of our armed forces and our veterans, so I will close my remarks by repeating that I welcome this debate and the tone of it. I hope that veterans listening to it feel that their contribution to this country—putting their lives on the line to serve this country and defend its values—is appreciated, and that we will provide the services they need.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I think I have intervened quite a few times now. I am usually the last speaker, but I am pleased to contribute to the debate and thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me.
I have a registered interest as former serving soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years, and in the Territorial Army, Royal Artillery reserves, for 11 and a half years. The veterans strategy means a great deal to me, not only because of my personal interest as a former part-time soldier, but because the constituency I represent, Strangford, has a good history of interest and service in all the services, whether the Army, the RAF or the Royal Navy.
Like the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I attended four remembrance services last Sunday. The first was at 8 o’clock in the morning at Cloughey, the second at 11 o’clock at the cenotaph in Newtownards, our major town, the third at 2.30 pm in Ballyhalbert, and then there was a church service at 7 o’clock in the evening. At every service, I was struck by the turnout of youth organisations, including church groups, the scouts, the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade, and the cadets. While we noticed those who were missing from the year before, we were greatly encouraged by the number of youth organisations that were on parade. The next generation is coming through, which is good to see.
I thank the Minister for referring in his introduction to the new consultation document. He can expect to receive some applications from my part of the world. It is good news that money has been set aside regionally, so we can all benefit. I know that is what he always wants, and it is what we always want as well.
Looking about at the remembrance services, we noticed the older veterans, of course, but also the number of people in the crowds who were there to watch and support, wearing their medals with pride. It was a reminder that veterans walk among us every day and are not simply older pensioners. When I saw those men and women standing in solemn remembrance, straight backed, medals on their chests shone to within an inch of their life, I felt the deep frustration and anger to which other Members have referred.
The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford is no longer here, but he mentioned certain things that I hope to speak about as well, because it is important to put them on the record. I thought of the depth of frustration and anger that would cause a veteran to ask his constituency MP, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), to return his medals to the Prime Minister a number of weeks ago. I do not know more than what I read in the press, but the reason for that was the witch hunt of ex-service personnel in Northern Ireland due to the Irish Republican agenda to rewrite history. Men and women in their 80s are waiting for a letter questioning them about events that took place some 45 years ago. I thought of that as we thought of our veterans on Remembrance Sunday last week.
It is right and proper to acknowledge the 100-year anniversary of the armistice, but I believe it is also right and proper to acknowledge that we owe a duty of care to the veterans of service in Northern Ireland. We are not fulfilling that duty satisfactorily, with respect and as well as we can. It is estimated that some 300,000 military personnel were deployed in Northern Ireland in the course of Operation Banner, which I served in myself. It was the longest running military operation in the history of the British Army and incorporated service in many aspects throughout the troubles.
Many of those men and women who participated carry the scars of that today. Those soldiers who bravely put on the uniform to serve Queen and country are now sitting in their retirement home or their own home frantically trying to recall what they had worked for years to forget, having knowingly put their lives on the line in the battle against the lowest of the low terrorists—terrorists who believed they were justified in firing into a gospel mission hall in Darkley; terrorists who believed they had the right to blow up a war memorial in Enniskillen with women and children surrounding it; and terrorists who had no qualms whatsoever about sending false information to ensure the biggest fatality of innocent people doing their shopping in Omagh.
For many of those veterans, the pain and trauma of the past is very real. They have memories of holding their dying friends in their arms, of sifting through rubble and human body parts, of the screams of anguish, and of the fear of that car driving slowly up to their checkpoint. While sitting here, I thought of one story in particular. One of the first UDR men to be killed was a fellow called Winston Donnell in Strabane. A car reversed up towards him and IRA gunmen shot him. He was one of the first to die.
These veterans have memories of the fear of speaking to anyone when off duty and wanting to grab a beer, for fear of a honeytrap, or a beating when their British accent was heard. I often think of the three Scottish soldiers who were murdered in Belfast; they are very much on my mind. All those things are re-traumatising veterans, as we allow them to be re-terrorised in order to provide a sop to the republicans, who have no shame about anything they did and inexplicably wish to rewrite history to seem justified.
There was and is no justification for the murder of my cousin Kenneth Smyth on 10 December 1971 outside Clady in County Tyrone. There was and is no justification for the murder of Lexie Cummings, also a former UDR member, in Strabane on his lunchbreak. And there certainly was no justification for the murder of the four young UDR men at Ballydugan outside Downpatrick, three of whom I knew personally. There can never be any justification for that. This debate on the veterans strategy must incorporate a promise to stop allowing republican murderers to justify their actions.
No one was held accountable for any of those murders. No one was ever held accountable for the murder of Kenneth Smyth. Nobody was ever held accountable for the murder of Lexie Cummings. The person who did it works across the border in Sligo and is a prominent member of Sinn Féin. The person who carried out the murder of the four UDR men at Ballydugan got his just deserts in Downpatrick some time later, but the fact of the matter is that seven other people were arrested, and whatever their role may have been, they were not held accountable either. We need to stop allowing republican murderers to justify their actions at the expense of the mental and physical health of men and women who did nothing wrong, other than to dare to be British and to serve their Queen and country.
Any veterans strategy must incorporate support for those questioned and put an end to the questioning by police. The fact of the matter is that veterans who served in Northern Ireland and who live in Northern Ireland get a raw deal. They still have heightened security concerns due to their service and yet have no benefit from serving.
We do not have a right and proper implementation of the military covenant due to the section 75 element of the Belfast agreement, which has given 20 years of excuses for republicans to continue their hatred and persecution of anything that is slightly related to being British. I am proud to be British and proud to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I often refer to myself as a proud Ulster man who lives in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Those 20 years of excuses for republicans to continue their hatred show the power of section 75. The Minister referred to it earlier, and I hope we can move that along. I know that discussions are ongoing, and I hope we can get some satisfaction. The most ironic part is that it was those veterans, whom they hate so much, who gave them the right to have section 75 to start with.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I repeat the poem read by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford. I heard it for the first time last week, on Remembrance Sunday, when one of the young people was doing readings at the Cenotaph. The poem reads:
“It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
These soldiers did not do a shabby job. They did the best they could in situations that we cannot even begin to imagine. We need to stop being shabby to them.
If we medically retire a 30-year-old soldier who joined up at 18—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) gave us an example from her constituency that I must say very much resonated with me—we need, without going into too much detail, to ensure he has a place to live, training for a job that is suitable to the disabilities caused by his service and, vitally, mental health support to help him to deal with the trauma and scars that service has left.
Dr Deirdre MacManus, a lead consultant psychiatrist at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the transition, intervention and liaison service in London, has said:
“We have seen a greater than 100 per cent increase in referrals over the last six months… We still get soldiers who served in Northern Ireland coming.”
Almost 50,000 veterans have mental health issues, which are often sparked by combat stress. Another 6,000 are homeless and 10,000 are in prison or on probation, as others have mentioned. We need to address those issues as well. I ask myself the question, but I also ask the Minister: are we doing enough? We do look to the Minister for such support, and I have no doubt whatsoever that it will be forthcoming.
How can we do this better? I want to be able to look the veterans in the eye when I meet them, as I do in my constituency. As I always do, I will meet them on Remembrance Sunday next year. When I tell them, “We are remembering you”, I want to be able say that we have done something in this House to make the situation better.
I want to refer quickly to the charities. SSAFA does tremendous work. I have held a coffee morning for it every year since I became the Member of Parliament, which has raised almost £30,000 for it over those years. Help the Heroes and the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member, also do tremendous work. The hon. Member for Torbay mentioned the Royal British Legion and the great work it does. I suppose it is the principal port of call for most people.
May I also give a plug to Beyond the Battlefield? The Minister will forgive me for saying this, but he knows I will refer to it. It does tremendous work in getting to the people who are under the radar, such as those who do not register with the associations. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned how associations do not always pick them up, but it is funny how Beyond the Battlefield seems to do so. Whether for benefits, housing, health issues or the appeals, it is there and it does tremendous work. So many people across Northern Ireland are indebted to it for the hard work it does. All these charities do phenomenal work, but that should be additional work, not the only support. That is the point we are trying to get to, if we can.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that the shadow Minister and the Minister want to speak. I believe it is time that we enabled the talking in here to be turned into action out there. I believe—I will reiterate this again, as others have—that the urgent thing is to stop the witch hunt against soldiers and start helping all the veterans who gave their all for us.
It is a pleasure to respond to this constructive and positive debate on behalf of the Opposition.
Those who work in our armed forces deserve our thanks and appreciation, and they also deserve support should they require it when they leave service. As we know, the transition can be difficult for some. The veterans strategy is an opportunity to set out what additional support may be required and how the Government—in partnership with devolved and local government, and the voluntary, charitable and private sectors—can come together to offer a co-ordinated and holistic range of support services. Labour’s recently published social contract for veterans guarantees support in areas such as housing, mental health and retraining, and I would like to see the veterans strategy developed to offer a similar guarantee.
During this afternoon’s debate, we heard from the Minister about the importance of the covenant, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), and he spoke about the patchy delivery of the covenant across the country. In areas where we have committed armed forces champions, they are driving the covenant forward. Sadly, however, that is not the case everywhere.
We heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), about the genuine need for a cross-Government approach to highlighting support for veterans. She talked about the Government’s poor record in some areas with regard to public service cuts, and about the austerity those cuts have brought to a lot of the services on which veterans and others rely.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who raised the case of war widows. He also talked about the range of remembrance events and the display of knitted poppies that he visited last week. That reminded me of my visits to St David’s church in Merthyr Tydfil, which had a very moving display, “For the Fallen”, in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, and to St Tyfaelog’s church in Pontlottyn, which also had a very moving display that included a wall of poppies outside the church.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) highlighted the change in demographics over the next 10 years, and raised the issue that will face us of younger veterans who have different needs from those we are used to. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) spoke about the veterans gateway, the need to ensure that queries are properly dealt with, and the need for clarity on a tracking system. A moving account from a veteran’s wife highlighted the lack of support for veterans who suffer from poor mental health. We all agree that more needs to be done on that issue, and that is something that Members throughout the House will support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan)—home of the Royal Navy—said that the comprehensive strategy is a good start and easy to read, but that it needs to have teeth, as does the armed forces covenant. We also need more data on suicides to enable us better to prevent them in future, and to recognise the scale of the issue. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke about mental health and the need for support. He mentioned the Disability Confident scheme, which I was pleased to launch in my constituency last month.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) welcomed the cross-cutting elements of the strategy, but said that more detail is needed on crucial issues of collaboration. He also mentioned the change in demographics, and gave a moving personal account that recognised the scale of the mental health issues facing our veterans and the need to do more to prevent suicides. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) praised the excellent work that the Royal British Legion does across the country, which we would all echo. The hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned the unique situation in Northern Ireland, where there are a lot of veterans who have put their lives on the line, as well as the work of charities and other support services.
Let me reiterate that Labour supports any strategy that seeks to provide additional support to our armed forces. The strategy includes much that we welcome, including on the need for greater collaboration and co-ordination among agencies, the need to improve the public perception of our veterans, and the need to promote greater recognition of the contribution made by our armed forces veterans, so that they in turn feel better valued by the country. However, although there is much we welcome, it is essential that the strategy, and any support it outlines, is funded properly. We have heard a number of times during the debate, not least from my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, that the services used by many veterans are provided by local authorities and other public bodies—organisations that have had their budgets cut significantly under the austerity agenda pursued by the Government since 2010.
I know that many colleagues in local government would dearly love to provide enhanced services and additional support to our armed forces veterans—indeed, many authorities, public bodies and, increasingly, private companies already try to support veterans and the wider armed forces family through the covenant. However, those organisations, particularly those in the public and charitable sectors, are hamstrung by the lack of financial support from the Government, and although we all support the need for more to be done, the Government must ensure that their strategy is properly funded.
Like the armed forces covenant, the strategy provides a vehicle to co-ordinate support for our veterans, and we welcome it. However, perhaps the Minister will answer a few key points. Has he, or any of his colleagues in the Department, had contact with the Treasury about the need to properly resource local government and the devolved Administrations, so that we can provide our veterans with the very best support? Will he join us in calling for an end to the deep cuts that we have seen over the past eight years?
As we have heard, the armed forces covenant provides important guarantees to our veterans, but there are long-standing concerns about patchy provision. What is the Department doing to ensure that the covenant’s promises become a reality for our veterans community and that the strategy does not simply represent more warm words?
Finally, we have heard from colleagues this afternoon, including the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford and the hon. Members for Torbay and for Strangford, about the worrying issue of false legal claims being brought against members of our veterans community. It is now more than 15 months since the Conservatives pledged to get to grips with this issue in their 2017 election manifesto. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect to see some firm proposals?
With the leave of the House, I have the pleasure of concluding this cross-party debate on supporting our armed forces, which has been frank and fair. It is pleasing to see the energy of Members on both sides of the House who want to continue our commitment to supporting our armed forces—those in uniform, their families and those who transit into civilian life and are again able to offer something back to society. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions today.
I would first like to pick up on some of the points raised by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). We are absolutely working to try to identify more funds. He will be aware of the pressures, but there are pockets of funding to be found. It is important that we have greater collaboration and co-ordination on the support that is required for veterans across all levels. We have a further opportunity to debate that next Thursday when we scrutinise the covenant, and I very much look forward to that.
I would like to touch on other contributions. The shadow Defence Secretary spoke about implementation and outcomes. I absolutely agree that it is important to look at them when considering the strategy, and I hope that will be a part of the consultation process. She also touched on an interesting aspect of this issue, which is apprenticeships. We have, I think, more apprenticeships than many other Government Department. We are very proud of that, and apprenticeships are a key contributor to what our armed forces can do.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) passed on a number of messages from Members who understandably could not be here today, including the Chair of the Defence Committee. It is also right that the whole House pays tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who did an incredible job as the Prime Minister’s envoy promoting and organising the world war one commemorations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford and others also touched on lawfare issues with regard to what is happening to our veterans in Northern Ireland. He hinted at my personal view, which is on the record. This is a matter for the Armed Forces Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I have spoken to her about it recently, and we do need to advance the issue. I am aware that it has taken some time, but I know that she is aware of how serious it is and the awkwardness of those who have served and retired completely having to think back to what they did 40 to 50 years ago. We face a very strange situation.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) spoke about Danish models and US models. I touched earlier on the fact that we are sharing best practice on supporting veterans with other nations. He talked about the role of the veterans champions in Scotland, and I am pleased to see that they are in place. I hope that the consultation will address the issue of co-ordination.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) for all the support she has given me personally during her time at the Ministry of Defence. It is clear that she is passionate about defence. I know she will continue, wherever she sits in the Chamber, to be an advocate for our armed forces. [Interruption.] I meant on the Front Bench or the Back Benches, rather than anywhere else across the Chamber. The work she did to support me, with her background and her understanding of the detail, was absolutely phenomenal. She raised a number of points about accountability. Perhaps we can have a discussion—we have raised this privately as well—about how we can advance some of the ideas that exist, which are well worth it.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) was very proud, quite rightly, to speak about the home of the Royal Navy. He made light of the fact that the veterans strategy makes for lighter reading—I hope—than the Brexit document. It is certainly shorter, and possibly might last longer as well—who knows? [Interruption.] The Whips Office did not write that one down.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the ID card, which is very important. Recognition of who our veterans are is critical. Veterans are allowed to keep their ID card—the MOD 90, as it is called—when they depart. We cut the corner off, and that gives them the identification. Veterans are now allowed to apply, and we are just getting the process in place. Drivers’ licences will also have a label on them to say whether someone is a veteran. The whole purpose is to allow businesses and organisations to celebrate the fact that they can offer discounts and support to those who are genuinely veterans. Those schemes exist already; we have the Defence Discount Service. I very much encourage all hon. Members to go on to the website and see a virtual map of the fantastic support and discounts that are available for our armed forces and veterans in their towns and constituencies. That is well worth understanding.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke about Care after Combat and the Career Transition Partnership, which I did not get to touch on. The partnership is absolutely critical. Its work is advancing, and it is doing an incredible job of making sure that we look after individuals and tailor programmes that take people through the necessary steps of crafting their CV and seeing where their strengths are. I underline the incredible and often unique skillsets that people pick up in the armed forces, but it is also fair to say that many businesses are not so familiar with how those skillsets can be used in new contexts. The Career Transition Partnership programme deals with exactly that.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said that collaboration between veterans services needs greater co-ordination. I hope that we can continue to provide that, and it is part of what the veterans strategy is intended to achieve through consultation. That must be a critical objective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) gave a passionate speech about the importance of supporting our veterans. He also rightly articulated how our veterans become part of every aspect and every walk of society. In some cases people would not necessarily know that, because a veteran may have retired some time ago, but veterans do incredible jobs. It might simply be about going up to a veteran and saying, “Thank you for your service.” That gives me licence to promote the veterans breakfast clubs, which are a brilliant initiative. One a week is now opening up. They are simple operations. A café might just put a sign up, saying, “Veterans meet here at 8 o’clock on a Wednesday morning”, and then like-minded people turn up, with different experiences, but feeling valued—that is what it is all about—and being thanked for their service.
Finally, there was the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As I said, I want to do some more work with Northern Ireland specifically. He mentioned Operation Banner, and he knows that I served there. He raised many of the issues that we continue to need to work on. I am pleased to be able to go back there and see how, in the very specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, we can advance the covenant and our responsibility and duties to our brave veterans and service personnel there.
I end simply by saying that all this is about our armed forces. It is about our ability to remain in a position to say that we have the most professional armed forces in the world. We can only recruit the next generation of potential service personnel if they know that they will be looked after once they depart the armed forces. It is so important that we continue to have a strong military, given the dangers that we face. It is what we do and what other nations expect us to do—to have a credible, formidable and capable hard power. Ever fewer nations are stepping forward with the ability and desire to help to shape the world about us.
Ultimately, it is also in our economic interest to maintain a strong defence. Indeed, the first line of the strategic defence and security review states that our economic security is aligned with our defence and security. If we want a good, strong economy and prosperity, it is important for us to be able to defend our shipping lanes and support prosperity in other parts of the world, where it might be threatened.
What is pertinent is that we are now moving towards the spending review, which will provide for the five-year cycle and show where our armed forces funding will go. However, that veers away from matters concerning veterans.
Let me reiterate my thanks for the contributions that have been made today, and for the cross-party support for our armed forces. I end by saying thank you to all who have served in our gallant and brave armed forces.