Veterans Care Sector: Government Role

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:27 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 6:27 pm, 25th October 2016

I congratulate my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer on securing this debate. His sterling work and passion in ensuring that our veterans have the necessary support and welfare they deserve are highly commendable. As a veteran himself, he is well placed to speak in the House on their behalf. Since arriving in the Commons in 2015, he has made it his mission to campaign on this area. Although I cannot claim to be a veteran quite yet—I was described by a senior general at the Army Board last week as a “seasoned oak”, so clearly it cannot be long before I can—I do, through my rather more modest service, absolutely recognise the importance of this subject.

Equally, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern about my ever-expanding portfolio, to which the reserves have been added. As a Royal Engineer, I have now been a serving member of the Army Reserve for some 28 years. I confess that I used to say that I looked far too young to have been one for so many years, but I fear that I nowadays do not look far too young. However, I do at least have some basic understanding of that brief, and I have not had to do too much background reading.

Comments have been made about the armed forces covenant—the recognition that the nation, as well as the Government, have a responsibility to ensure that our veterans suffer no disadvantage as a result of their service. There is an implication in those comments that the covenant has not been applied consistently across the United Kingdom. I have had such a concern for some time. That is why I commissioned the Forces in Mind Trust to do a review of the covenant across the United Kingdom earlier this year, and it has recently published a very extensive report that aims to share best practice.

I encourage colleagues in the House tonight to read that report and, crucially, pull out that best practice and encourage their own local authorities to follow it. There are some fantastic things happening across the UK. It will come as no surprise that the local authorities that seem to do things best are those with the greatest proportion of members of the armed forces. I take the opportunity of this debate to send the message: please spread that report far and wide, as it is the means by which we can begin to improve the level of understanding of the armed forces covenant.

The service charities have a crucial role to play. We have been supporting organisations such as Cobseo—the Confederation of Services Charities—which is an umbrella organisation for 250 charities, in its critical cluster work. I will talk about that in greater detail throughout the course of the debate.

My hon. Friend and I agree on many things, but I fear there is one on which we do not. I once again note his request for a separate Department for veterans. I can only repeat what I said in the debate in March this year, that on balance I do not believe that to be the best approach; if it meant I ended up in the Cabinet he might be able to persuade me to change my mind, but I fear it would not be me in the Cabinet. The needs of veterans straddle Whitehall boundaries and national borders because first and foremost our veterans are civilians. As I said previously, although we agree on the end, we do not necessarily agree on the means.

I fear a veterans Ministry would duplicate work that already exists through the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government and many organisations and Government agencies. I believe that the work of Defence Business Services Veterans UK provides a valuable service bringing together pensions, compensation and welfare support.