I relish this opportunity to raise this important issue, which is hugely significant—not only to my constituents in North Devon, but across the country. It is, of course, extremely significant at the moment, during the lead-up to Armed Forces Day on Saturday.
It is worth saying, perhaps for the benefit of those watching these proceedings from outside, that no inference should be drawn from the, sadly, rather small number of colleagues in the House today. That is absolutely not a reflection of the extraordinarily high regard in which all Members view members of the armed forces and veterans; it is purely, I am afraid, a product of the parliamentary timetable and the fact that many colleagues will now be on their way to their constituencies to take part in events for Armed Forces Day this weekend.
I start on a personal note by sharing my own grandfather’s story. He fought in the great war and enrolled at the start of the conflict. He told the Army that he was born in 1895. When he passed away 60 years later, we discovered the truth: he had lied about his age. He was so eager to serve King and country that he had signed up as a 15-year-old boy.
One hundred years after the end of the first world war, I am now the proud custodian of my grandfather’s service medals and ribbons, but I am ashamed to say that we know nothing else of his part in the conflict. Like many of his generation, he never talked about it. He was alive until I was 10 years old, but I do not recall having a single conversation with him about his part in the war—that is just the way it was for that generation.
How times have changed, and rightly so. Today we are far more aware of the service of our armed forces veterans. We understand much better the challenges they face, and we openly acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe them, but with that greater understanding comes difficult questions. Questions about whether society and the state are doing enough to support our veterans and to provide them with the assistance they need and deserve. That is the focus of my thoughts today.
There are around 2.5 million veterans in the UK. It depends on how we count, but that is the best figure. My county of Devon has the highest number of veterans as a proportion of its population of any county in the UK. We have some 100,000 veterans living in Devon. Many of them are in my constituency of North Devon, where of course we have a very proud historical connection with the military. It is the home of Royal Marines Base Chivenor, which my right hon. Friend the Minister visited earlier this year. Until recently, we also had an Army base at Fremington. There is also a military establishment at Instow.
North Devon is also home to veterans who have served in many military establishments across Devon and, indeed, the rest of the south-west. It has a proud historical connection with the armed services, so I take a particular interest in all these matters.
The centrepiece of our country’s contract with our armed services veterans is the armed forces covenant, which is a promise by the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, will be treated fairly and suffer no disadvantage. It also allows for special consideration, especially and most importantly where a veteran has been injured or a family bereaved.
The covenant has achieved a great deal since its inception in 2011. It is now embedded in the NHS constitution, and all local authorities in Great Britain, as well as more than 2,500 other organisations and businesses, are now signed up to its principles, but there is always more we can do to support our veterans. I am encouraged by the fact that this Government have gone further and established the ministerial covenant and veterans board better to co-ordinate central Government’s approach to our service personnel and to veterans and their families. Local delivery is supported by the covenant fund of £10 million a year in perpetuity, which funds projects across the UK.
That is all to be welcomed, but I have mentioned that there are difficult questions and there are challenges, and these cannot be ignored because, for some of our veterans, those disadvantages are foremost. I will focus on three issues, but chief among them is mental health.
In Devon it is estimated that almost one in six of our veterans has complex mental health needs, which is an issue that will no doubt grow in importance in the coming years. Over the next decade or so the veterans population will experience a dramatic shift from the second world war cohort of largely conscripted former service personnel to a younger cohort of professional servicemen and women who fought in very different conflicts and therefore face very different challenges. They fought in conflicts or took part in peacekeeping duties in theatres such as Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands, the Balkan countries and many, many more.
Mental ill health, often presenting itself in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, is in many cases an invisible condition. Not only does the state need to take greater notice, but society needs to change its attitude, too. That is something in which I take a particular interest, ranging across not just our former armed forces personnel but many others who are living with mental ill health.
I therefore welcome the Defence Secretary’s recent pledge to increase funding for armed forces mental health services to £220 million over the next decade, and of course, as we heard recently, NHS budgets across the board are increasing, which is a start, but we must ensure that a significant chunk of that new money is targeted at those who need help with mental health conditions. Our growing understanding of the long-term impacts of active service and the changing nature of our veteran communities means we should look to go further, too.
To that end, I am encouraged by the establishment of the veterans strategy which will look to address the changing needs of our armed services personnel and improve mental health support. I very much look forward to its publication in November, and I am sure the Minister will talk more about that in his remarks.
We must also acknowledge the excellent work being undertaken by many charities, voluntary bodies and third sector organisations. It is invidious to just pull out a couple for mention as there are many and I wish to acknowledge all of them, but I mention in particular the charities Combat Stress and the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, which works to support the “access pathway” into the NHS for veterans suffering from mental health problems. They are all doing very worthwhile work.
As we are talking about the contribution of charities, I would like to bring to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the Lee Rigby Foundation, which is run by the parents of that murdered fusilier, who lived in my constituency. They have opened up a home for respite and retreat for injured soldiers and their families, and are also hoping to open a veterans lodge. They rely solely on fundraising.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that case; it is another fine example of a charity that is doing fantastic work in this regard.
The work done by such organisations, many of which we have not mentioned, is vital not least because research carried out by the Royal British Legion has found that social isolation and loneliness are now widely experienced among our veteran community, and that leads further to mental health problems. More attention must be given to the unique experiences of our armed forces community; their mobile lifestyle and self-reliant culture and a stigma about speaking out or seeking help can all lead to isolation, leaving veterans unable to seek support for what could be, or develop into, a serious mental health condition.
I recognise that much of the responsibility for our veterans lies with local authorities and in our local communities, and I am pleased that every local authority in Great Britain, including in my area North Devon District Council and Devon County Council, has now signed the armed forces covenant. But merely signing up to the covenant is not enough. Sadly, there remains wide variation in the implementation of the covenant’s pledges; it is to some extent a postcode lottery—that was the phrase used by one veteran who contacted me in the last few hours, having seen the social media publicity around this Adjournment debate. That veteran is correct.
I thank a fellow west country MP for giving way.
There are places like Plymouth and Portsmouth, and clearly north Devon as well, that are doing so much to embed the covenant into all aspects of the public services, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that this must not be a document that gathers dust on a local council’s or local business’s bookshelf; it needs to be lived and breathed and implemented every single day to make it real?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment, and that is precisely the point I am seeking to come on to. Signing up to the covenant is not enough; there needs to be active participation by those who sign on the dotted line.
Another difficulty is that a lack of familiarity with the services available often prevents some veterans and their families from seeking the help and support that they need. That is why I am delighted that Devon County Council has established a website—a one-stop shop—that serves as an online directory of services and support for veterans and their families. The Devon Forces Family website hosts dedicated information in a single place, making it quick and easy for all those connected with our armed forces to access the services and assistance they need. In particular, websites such as Devon Forces Family can help veterans and their families to find suitable housing, and therefore complement central Government policy.
The Government are helping forces families to get on the property ladder by, for example, making loans totalling £163 million to help more than 10,000 forces personnel to get on or stay on the property ladder. Veterans need to be availed of similar opportunities, and I hope that a way can be found to ensure that that can happen. Communication is key and co-operation across different levels of Government is essential. For those seeking social housing, local authorities must ensure that changes to the law, which have been designed to ensure that veterans with urgent housing needs are prioritised, are fairly and properly implemented in their area. We must be sure that all statutory bodies that are responsible for delivering on those changes are doing so, and that they are making sure that veterans receive the practical help that they need, targeted to them in a timely and efficient manner.
When we think about support for our armed forces veterans, there is a third aspect. I say at the outset that I take close notice of the Standing Orders as they relate to matters that are sub judice. It is perhaps the elephant in the room: the issue of historical prosecutions. The issue has been and is being considered elsewhere more widely, so I shall not comment on individual cases, except to say that I am taking an extremely close interest in one in my own constituency. It is a matter that is, understandably, causing concern to veterans in my constituency and elsewhere. Indeed, I have had a great deal of correspondence from veterans, and I met a number of them in my constituency surgery recently to discuss the issue. I understand their concerns.
Let me pose this question: do we really want our veterans to have to worry about hearing a knock on the door and being hauled before a court to be held to account to today’s standards for alleged offences that happened more than 20, 30 or even 40 years ago—incidents that happened when young servicemen, sometimes only teenagers themselves, were facing threats the likes of which most of us can only imagine? I add my voice to the growing support for a statute of limitations, which would see soldiers exempted from prosecutions after 10 years had passed. I commend my hon. Friend Leo Docherty for securing Monday’s Adjournment debate on the issue, which many of us stayed late to hear.
Let me be clear: that is not to say that these sorts of cases should be swept under the carpet and not dealt with at all. I recognise that closure is extremely important. I very much welcome the Northern Ireland Office consultation, which is currently seeking views on how better to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. That consultation closes on
For now, as we approach Armed Forces Day, I wish to achieve a number of things, and I am sure that the Government have the same ambition. Let us ensure that we continue to do all we can to provide the help and support that our veterans need. As a Government, let us leave no stone unturned when it comes to ensuring that we are doing all we can. It is not just about money and resources; it is about using those resources more smartly by making information more widely available, making sure that we have joined-up thinking across all the statutory bodies and third-sector organisations that work with veterans, and recognising in the first place the growing challenge that veterans face, particularly when it comes to their mental health.
Let us acknowledge and support the outstanding work that is being done, and let us do what my grandfather and I never had the chance to do: let us talk with pride about the service of our veterans, and in doing so recognise that we owe them all the help and support that they require, as well as a huge debt of gratitude, not only on Armed Forces day but on every day of the year—
Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman even though he is just on his peroration, because we have to move the 5 o’clock motion again.
Motion lapsed (
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)
May I begin with a declaration of interest as a colonel in the reserves?
As is customary on these occasions, I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Heaton-Jones on securing this important Adjournment debate. May I thank him also for an absolutely delightful and educational visit to Chivenor? It was a pleasure to go down there to see the Marines and the activities that are going on and also to understand what is happening as we rationalise the real estate of the armed forces. I am grateful for his interest in that matter. I am also thankful that he has drawn the House’s attention to this important issue of mental health and to the support for veterans, too.
My hon. Friend mentioned his grandfather. He tells a tale of a 15-year-old who wanted to serve King and country and to lie on the sign-up sheets. That was repeated across the country. Massive tribute should be paid to the dedication, the loyalty, the commitment and the bravery of people stepping out into the unknown, unsure of what to do, but knowing also that it was the right thing to do. I pay huge tribute to his grandfather. I know that his action was repeated up and down the country.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Armed Forces Day. This debate is absolutely timely, as we celebrate, mark and reflect on the role that the armed forces play in our society. The bond between our armed forces and society is critical. We recruit from society. That is our gene pool, and it is where we want to attract people from, so that we have an armed force by consent of the nation. Therefore, that relationship that we have is absolutely pivotal if we want to keep the professionalism of our armed forces, which are revered and respected across the world.
I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State will be in Llandudno in north Wales, leading the focal point of Armed Forces Day celebrations, which will be repeated up and down the country as we pay our tributes. I see Luke Pollard is nodding. Last year, I went to the Armed Forces Day celebrations in his constituency, and they were fantastic.
My hon. Friend also mentioned that these celebrations mark the end of the second world war; they also mark the 100th anniversary of the RAF, so we have another opportunity this weekend for us to say thanks to those in uniform.
Interestingly, Northern Ireland celebrates its Armed Forces Day a week earlier. Last weekend, I was in Coleraine in Northern Ireland. Having served there myself, may I just say what a pleasure it was to be able to see the bands, the infanteers and those in uniform marching down the high street of Coleraine with the absolute support of the public? It was absolutely gratifying to see that because when I served in Northern Ireland, we could not even move from one place to another unless we were on patrol in uniform. Again, it is an illustration of that important bond between society and our armed forces.
My hon. Friend raises this matter of support for veterans with a focus on mental health and other issues. I was pleased to give evidence this Tuesday at the Defence Committee’s evidence session on armed forces veterans and mental health. This morning, I had the opportunity to speak at the Queen Elizabeth conference centre to the Forces in Mind Trust. This is an important body that helps to provide accurate data on exactly what is going on with our veterans and our armed forces. My hon. Friend mentioned that there are 2.5 million veterans. The profile of our veterans community is likely to change over the next 10 years. It will decrease by about 1 million because we will very sadly lose those who fought in the second world war.
As we are talking about the honesty and clarity of the data we need, I want to take the opportunity to emphasise up front that life in the armed forces is a rewarding and fantastic experience. The vast majority of personnel serve well, transition well and leave well. The nation has benefited from their service, and continues to benefit from their service once they have packed up their uniform and slid it across to the quartermaster that final time. We benefit because of the unique set of skills that people learn in the armed forces: leadership, teamwork, grit, tenacity, determination and a bit of attitude. Those are skillsets that any employer would want.
The majority of veterans transition back into society without a problem at all. Some 90% of people who have gone through our transition programmes are back in education or employment within six months of leaving the armed forces. When we have debates, it is therefore important that we emphasise this point and try to remove the negative myths about our armed forces that still abound.
One of those myths is that people who serve somehow come out damaged. I am afraid that people have the perception that if someone is wearing a uniform or did wear the uniform, they will somehow be damaged. Lord Ashcroft’s helpful report confirmed that that is absolutely not the case, as everyone who is close to the armed forces knows. If these myths perpetuate and we do not put the challenges in perspective, it can affect the reputation of the whole of the armed forces, it can affect employers who might think of recruiting somebody who was in the armed forces and it gives false perceptions of the experience. Veterans are no more likely to commit suicide, to have post-traumatic stress disorder or to have mental health issues than people in the general population.
That said, we are not complacent. We recognise that there are those who experience difficulties and need help, and we must be there to provide that help. We have brought forward the armed forces covenant to ensure that responsibility, which often goes way beyond the Ministry of Defence into other Government Departments. We want to ensure that those responsible are actually doing the things that they have to do in this regard.
The Minister is making an excellent contribution. When I visited the Community Awareness Programme in my constituency, people told me about the large number of homeless veterans coming through their doors. The Minister is making a point about the liaison with local authorities and homelessness charities to provide specialist support to veterans who may have mental health needs that have not been addressed. That is very important, as such support can enable them to hold down a home, rebuild their families and enter civvy street again with dignity.
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the charity she mentioned. She makes a valid point, and I will come to the issue of homelessness in a second.
I stress that it is important to treat the issue of mental health with due concern, but we must also put it into perspective when we look at wider society. The issue has stayed in the shadows not just in the armed forces, but across society; there has been a stigma surrounding mental health, and it has become secondary to physical injuries. Yet, we need to recognise that a third of us are likely to be affected by mental health issues at some point in our lives.
If these early mental health issues are not challenged and are left unaddressed, they can effect a downwards spiral that reduces confidence, has an impact on employment, destroys relationships, feeds loneliness and, in extreme cases, leads to homelessness and suicide. That is why we are undertaking a comprehensive overhaul of how we deal with mental health. We launched a new mental health strategy last year that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing—we now speak of it as mental fitness—to ensure that it is on a par with physical fitness. We need to ensure that we prevent people from experiencing the effects of mental health issues to begin with, but also that if they are affected, there is good detection, so that we can recognise and analyse it. With detection comes treatment, and following treatment comes recovery. We need to remove the stigma. We need to change the culture not just in society but in the armed forces, so that it is okay for someone to put their hand up and say that they are suffering from something, or for someone to point out that a friend, spouse and so on has an issue.
Those are the changes we are introducing, to ensure that every captain of a ship, every platoon commander and every individual is aware that it is okay to step forward and that help is available. I am really pleased that the Secretary of State is passionate about that. One of the first things he did in his role was to introduce a 24/7 helpline, working with Combat Stress, to ensure that there is a number to call, with professional help on the other end of the line. That now applies to those in the armed forces and veterans.
We have introduced a wave of measures for veterans. My hon. Friend covered them articulately, but I will touch on them briefly. First, the veterans gateway provides online access to a variety of veterans charities. I join him in paying a huge tribute to the incredible work that more than 400 military-facing charities do to provide those serving in our armed forces and those who have retired with the necessary support. However, if someone is homeless or unemployed, which charity do they turn to? It is important that there is a simple, single online gateway—there is also a telephone line—that gives advice and directs people to the necessary support.
My hon. Friend touched on the veterans board. It is imperative that we co-ordinate the work of Government Departments—whether it is the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education or the Department for Work and Pensions—and the devolved Administrations, because they all have a responsibility. Local government is also critical, and that is where we need to do more work. As has been mentioned, there are fine authorities such as those in Portsmouth and Plymouth that are familiar with the armed forces because they have military assets in their neighbourhood. We need to ensure that every local authority in the country recognises its obligations to the covenant and has an armed forces champion—one senior director who does not necessarily do the work up front but directs all aspects of work to ensure that support is available for veterans. That is new, and we need to work on it.
My hon. Friend touched on the veterans strategy and invited me to say a bit more about it. It will be launched in November and, again, is an initiative of the Defence Secretary. It focuses on four themes: first, looking at perceptions and trying to remove the myths surrounding the challenges that we face; secondly, improving co-ordination between the support that is out there; thirdly, offering a cultural shift in our attitudes towards veterans; and finally, there will be studies on specific areas, including mental health and homelessness, which we know are bigger issues that we need to pay more attention to.
Let me be the first to recognise that while we have done significant work and have some incredible projects coming through, there is an awful lot more to do to sharpen the practical impact of the covenant and ensure that we do our best to provide support for our brave veterans. We are immensely proud of our armed forces, given what they do for the nation. Our commitment to them must go beyond equipping and training them well as they serve, to supporting them after they leave. In society, not just in defence, as we become more comfortable in talking about and understanding mental health, everyone can play their part.
In conclusion, as we approach Armed Forces Day, I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important Adjournment debate. Let us further encourage people to think differently about our ex-service personnel. Whether as former soldiers, sailors or air personnel, reservists or MPs representing our proud and patriotic constituents, we all have a role in making this happen. We all know what our veterans have done in the past for our country, but we also know that they still have lots to give our nation in the future. We need to make sure that we put our considerable energies together to get that message out there.
Question put and agreed to.