[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 Armed Forces Covenant.
It is a pleasure—indeed, an honour—to open this debate on the armed forces covenant annual report 2018. Before I go any further, for those watching live, on the 10 o’clock news, the Parliament channel or maybe one day on Dave, I want to say on behalf of everyone here to those who are in the armed forces, whether they be regulars, reserves, part of the armed forces family and community or veterans: thank you for your service. The country is certainly indebted to you.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have reflected on the role of our armed forces in world war one, when Britain stepped forward. What happened then defined our reputation today, as a nation that is willing to fly the standard in defence of global liberty across the world. It is the professionalism of our armed forces today that allows us to continue playing a role on the international stage. That war also exposed the conditions that our services were fighting in when facing combat, as well as the requirement to support our armed forces when they return from the frontline.
My right hon. Friend mentioned liberty. A disproportionate number of our veterans are actually in prison. The excellent “Phoenix” project run by Care after Combat reaches only one in 10 veteran prisoners. Will he look at the possibility of finding finance to extend that excellent programme?
I am grateful for that early intervention. I will come on to that subject, but my right hon. Friend touches on something that I must grasp straightaway, which is the myths surrounding our armed forces. He is incorrect to say that a disproportionate number of our armed forces or vets are in prison. Indeed, in many categories, whether it be those suffering from mental health problems or those in prison, the number of people from the armed forces is lower compared with the general population. That does not mean to say that we should not provide support, including through charities such as the one that he mentions. I would be delighted to talk with him to see what more we can do to ensure that care is provided to those veterans, so that they do not reoffend and can provide more value to society once they depart.
Does the Minister agree that the same applies to the idea that veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless population, which is not true? Does he also accept that where service has caused problems leading to involvement with the criminal justice system and homelessness, we have a special duty under the military covenant to sort it out?
My hon. Friend touches on the essence of the covenant, which I will come to. He also underlines the myths that are perpetuated out there. As the cohort of our society has less and less direct contact with the armed forces, these myths can be perpetuated. It is up to those in the armed forces, as well as Government and Parliament, to ensure that those myths are not perpetuated.
Someone who joins the armed forces will come out a better person; they will learn more about themselves, go to places they did not even know existed and serve their nation with pride. Some 90% of those who serve leave the armed forces either in education or with a job. However, the underlying point must be made that many, through no fault of their own, require support, and we ensure that support is provided.
What are the Government doing to assist the families of ex-soldiers who have mental health problems? That is a very important factor, because it can lead to family break-ups and all sorts of problems. Can the Minister give us an assurance about that? I also remind him that it was a Labour Government who started the covenant.
Support for mental health—or what I prefer to call mental fitness—is critical to what the covenant espouses. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. If I may, I will venture further into my address, but he is welcome to intervene at a later stage.
I was touching on the reforms that we have seen since the first world war. There have been many key moments in the history of our nation when we bettered the service conditions for our armed forces. The major ones came in 1868 with the Cardwell reforms, which removed the use of flogging, abolished the sale of officers’ commissions and set the length of service for how long people would remain in uniform. In 1880, the Childers reforms established the regimental system that we recognise today and the standardisation of uniform. There was a feeling that wearing a red tunic on the battlefield was not such a great idea, and something a little bit greener might be better if we did not want the enemy to see us—something that my regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, picked up quite quickly, hence the name. From 1906, the Haldane reforms brought in the lessons from the Boer war, but also created the British Expeditionary Force—the first force to set foot in France and provide our initial response in world war one.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not know where we draw a line on those reforms, but he is absolutely right that the introduction of the reserves as such, and of a standing Army, was something Haldane was very important in doing, and we are ever grateful to him for that.
To go back to what happened in the aftermath of world war one, it was the warriors returning from the continent who exposed the shortfall in support for our veterans. That shortfall in support prompted the creation of many of the charities we recognise today, such as Combat Stress and Blesma, as well as the Royal British Legion, which led to the poppy appeal that does so much to support our veterans.
The Minister mentions the poppy in passing, but does he share my distaste about some of the remarks made in the far-left media during the Remembrance period? Such people of course have the right not to wear the poppy and even to object to it, but I rather thought that speaking out so negatively about the work of the Royal British Legion was beyond the pale. I hope the Minister agrees.
I think my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in supporting the poppy and the work of the campaign, which is absolutely terrific in providing support for our veterans. I would hate to see anybody choose to make political gain out of the poppy. It is important to reflect on what the campaign has achieved, and I hope that that will continue.
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to service personnel and their families for what they do for this country, and that is what the covenant is all about. It is about how we apply that in practical terms. Today, under section 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2011, we publish our seventh armed forces covenant annual report. In simple terms, the covenant is about the contract that we must have with those who serve and those who have served. In setting the scene for the debate, I will, if I may, read out its opening lines:
“The first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our Armed Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and, sometimes, suffering serious injury or death as a result of their duty. Families also play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces. In return, the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families.
They deserve our respect and support, and fair treatment.
Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.
This obligation involves the whole of society: it includes voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations, and the actions of individuals in supporting the Armed Forces. Recognising those who have performed military duty unites the country and demonstrates the value of their contribution. This has no greater expression than in upholding this Covenant.”
This is what the covenant is about: it is our duty to those who serve and have served.
I have looked at the document very carefully, and I can find nothing in it about the veterans, particularly Northern Ireland veterans, who are now being arrested for historical offences that took place many years ago. Many such veterans have been arrested already and about 300 more are facing the prospect of a dawn raid. This is completely against natural justice, it is against the covenant and these brave veterans deserve the full support of my right hon. Friend’s Department.
May I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend is doing along with other Back Benchers on this particular and important issue? He is absolutely right that that is not included in the report on the covenant because, quite separately, it is being studied by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that he is contributing to that debate as well. A consultation on this has been opened. He will be aware that this is tied in with the Belfast agreement. He knows my own personal views on this. As we move forward, we need to clarify this and be in a position whereby those who serve this country do not feel that questions will be asked about them 30, 40 or 50 years later.
The Minister has laid out the contract contained in the military covenant, but does he agree with me that people are rejecting the offer on a truly industrial scale? That is why we have a big problem with recruitment and retention. It is no good eulogising the covenant and the offer to members of our armed forces if they pass a vote of no confidence—that is essentially what they have done—in what is on offer.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a former naval officer. I would correct him about where the trends in recruitment are going; we have new processes in place. He will be aware of how competitive the current environment actually is. The challenge actually lies in retention. We need to be able to provide an atmosphere that encourages people, as their circumstances change—as they get married, as they have children—to remain in the thing they love: the armed forces themselves. I will come on to some of the changes being introduced specifically with that in mind to make sure that we can retain the people with the skillsets we need.
The right hon. Gentleman read out the opening remarks of the covenant. I am sure he will agree that a lot of the responsibilities for the covenant rest with local authorities. With funding settlements from the Ministry of Defence coming for only two-year periods, does he not agree that there is a need for more certainty in implementing the covenant? If authorities are given funding beyond the two-year funding formula, we could put in place long-term plans for supporting veterans and, indeed, bereaved families.
The hon. Gentleman touches on something that is so critical to the armed forces covenant. It is not just the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to execute it, but the duty of different Departments right across Whitehall. If they do not live up to their charge, it is often the MOD that gets to know about it. It is so important that the covenant has the practical ability to hold to account other Departments and, as he mentions, local authorities. That is one area in which we need to get better. I put my hand up to say that it is not as good or as equal across Britain—there are different standards depending on where people are—and that absolutely needs to improve.
On that particular point, will my right hon. Friend confirm how many local authorities are not signed up to the covenant? I know that my local authority, Powys, certainly is, and I am delighted that it is. Does he have any figures, and what more can he do to ensure that other local authorities sign up to it?
I am pleased to say that all local authorities are signed up, but signing up to something is not the same as implementing it. That is where we need to improve what we do by holding those local authorities to account. As I look around the Chamber, I see Members representing different parts of Britain. Some of our constituencies have a historical connection with the armed forces, and those local authorities tend to be far better at implementing the practical application of the covenant than those with less of a connection. That is what we need to change, and where the covenant must come in with a bit more venom and a bit more severity if we are to hold such local authorities to account.
Almost all public bodies—all local authorities and many clinical commissioning groups and schools—are signed up, but does my right hon. Friend agree with me that an area that causes the families of serving military personnel great frustration is when utility companies are difficult about allowing them to break contracts midway through because they have a change of posting or their circumstances change as a consequence of their duty? Does he agree that there is actually a great deal of work to be done among those in the private sector to persuade them to recognise the challenges of military life and to adapt their terms of service to accommodate such personnel?
My hon. Friend mentions two issues, on which I share his concern. On clinical commissioning groups, I am aware that, when service personnel are transferred from one locality to another, they do not necessarily gain the same access to medication for their children, which they need. It is very serious if children move to a new location and cannot get their medication and that must change—we must address that issue. He also mentioned businesses. The big and small businesses with which we are working and which have signed up to the covenant are providing flexibility on contracts. For example, those who are mobilised to go to Afghanistan are allowed to cancel their mobile phone contract without fear of penalty because those companies have signed up to the covenant. Those are practical examples of how businesses can provide support and not penalise people because of their service.
I touched on some of the changes that have been introduced in the past few years of which we can be proud. First, part of the support provided for charities is the introduction of the gateway—the single portal that allows any veteran, and their families, to identify where support might be found in myriad areas, be that housing, homelessness, writing a CV or employment. The veterans’ gateway provides a single access locality so that myriad charities that can help can be identified in a much simpler way than in the past, when perhaps it was a bit confusing to know which way to turn.
The second change—this is very much thanks to the Defence Secretary—is the launch of the 24/7 helpline for serving personnel and veterans. It is critical that people know where they can turn to for help, no matter what time it is, day or night, and no matter the situation.
I do not want to talk figures, but from my experience a worrying number of veterans take their own life, and I wonder what help is available for those who feel suicidal, for whatever reason. It is critical that we help people in their most urgent moment of need.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have introduced the Samaritans handbook to provide the necessary support for all serving personnel and that is being rolled out to veterans. I am concerned about this issue, which has taken a higher profile in social media and elsewhere. Whether it is perceived or otherwise, it is important that we do not shy away from our responsibility to help those veterans who may feel that they have gone into a very dark place. I touched on the 24/7 helpline, but there is also the cross-Whitehall veteran’s board that allows us to hold to account other Departments that need to upgrade their support for veterans and their families, as well as the armed forces. It is still in its infancy, and it still needs to get stronger and sharper in holding other Departments to account—I am sure we will debate that further this afternoon. However, I am pleased that the board is in place, and doing good work to encourage and wake up other Departments to their direct responsibilities, which are separate from those of the Ministry of Defence.
The Minister has just made an important point, and it is important that he recognises the infancy of the process. Is he seized of the inadequacy of the Northern Ireland Office representing Northern Ireland Departments, including Health and Housing, for which they have no operational responsibility or indeed knowledge?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I was in Northern Ireland for Remembrance Sunday and it was a pleasure to be back. He knows that I served there a number of years ago, and it was a pleasure to see how far advanced the whole of Northern Ireland is in embracing the ability publicly to thank the armed forces. I was in Coleraine for Armed Forces Day, but at the time that I served we would never have seen our armed forces marching down the streets with people thanking them for their service. There are, however, some particular challenges in Northern Ireland, of which the hon. Gentleman is more aware than me. He is also aware of the situation with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the development of the new districts that are coming in. It is a bottom-up approach. We are trying to make this work. There is the veterans’ support office, which he is familiar with. I have met people from that office, too. Anyone who feels that they are not receiving support needs to get directly in touch with that office because that is the avenue through which to find help. Help is there, but as with many situations, this is about knowing where to go when such help is required.
The other major change is the mental health strategy, and the significance of that issue has already been touched on a number of times. This is about what we put our brave personnel through, and whether there is a requirement for them to have additional support in that area. In my time—I am looking around the Chamber and there are many old warriors here—
Well let’s go out and do a basic fitness test and see how we get on. My point is that, in our time, would we have been willing to put our hand up and say that we had an issue with our mind? If we had a physical injury, absolutely, we would have stepped forward—we would not have had a problem with that—but there was perhaps a stigma associated with being honest about any mental troubles we might have had. That was the entirely wrong approach, because those issues can then incubate and become worse, and then someone ends up departing the very thing they love because they find it difficult to cope. That has a knock-on impact because, when somebody loses confidence in themselves, that affects their career possibilities, they may depart the armed forces and it may affect their relationships and lead to family break-up or unemployment, which could spiral into a very dark chapter.
Let us go back to the beginning. If someone is able and encouraged, and does not feel that it will threaten their ambitions in the armed forces, they should be able to put their hand up and say “Actually, I have a bit of an issue. Can someone help to sort it out?” Someone might say to them, “Why don’t you go and see the doctor and get yourself checked out? It’s okay”. That is the place we are now going towards. Every ship’s captain, platoon commander, squadron leader and person now has a responsibility—a duty—to look after each other and ensure that if there is an issue we talk about it straightaway. It is okay for someone to say that they are not okay.
The Minister is making a positive effort to outline the vision we ought to have, which I think everyone shares. Does he also recognise that four in 10 service families who have requested access to and been referred for mental health care have had difficulty accessing that treatment? That is not good enough and we need to do more. Many of our veterans experience great frustration when it comes to mental health support, and that leads to the despair that we have seen, with a spate of veteran suicides.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will come on to the details of mental health and wellbeing, and say what more we are doing. More funds have come through from the recent Budget, but we need to ensure that treatment is available and that veterans know where to find it.
My right hon. Friend is right. Over the three tours that I did, in 2005, 2007 and 2009, the difference in attitude to mental health, and the reactions within theatre to things that were happening, grew exponentially. The key is to ensure that the lessons learned when mental health was a necessity in combat become business as usual for regiments, ships and squadrons going forward. I hope that since I left the military in 2012 that has become the norm, and that it is business as usual for mental health always to be a topic of conversation, rather than just in connection with operations.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole aspect of decompression is new, too. When our armed forces come back from a combat arena, they are moved into a different environment before they see their family. They are checked and discussions are had to check their temperament. We now get back in touch 12 months after any person has departed the armed forces to see if they are still okay and how they are getting on. These are all new changes that were certainly not in place when I served and I do not think they were in place when my hon. Friend was serving either.
I want to touch on the transition service before I turn in more detail to mental health. We need to get to a place where people, when they put their hands up to say they are departing the armed forces, are retrained so they can move back into society without a problem. Again, when I served, this was not on anybody’s mind. As soon as we put our hands up to say we were departing, we were normally given rear echelon jobs and told to just get on with it.
Today, we have to recognise several things. The skill sets one learns in the armed forces are formidable: the leadership, teamwork, grit, tenacity, determination and the willingness to work beyond five o’clock are all skill sets that anybody in civilian life might want to pick up. As I have said, the cohort of people with direct understanding of what the armed forces are like is very different today from 20, 50 or 100 years ago. As such, an employer or HR director may not be aware of what it is like to be in the armed forces. They may have the wrong impression and they may believe the myths we touched on earlier.
It is therefore absolutely critical that we are able to work with businesses through our Defence Relationship Management and Career Transition Partnership teams. They go out to businesses to explain what skill sets are available and how they might be useful to workforces, and most importantly to train, to educate and to ensure that those who have put their hand up to say, for whatever reason, “I’ve decided to leave the armed forces” have the qualifications during what can be up to two years of transition. I am very proud of the direction of travel on that.
Those who serve in our armed forces actually serve our country twice. They not only do so in uniform with pride, doing something exceptional and unique that very few other people do—putting themselves in harm’s way to defend our country—they also serve a second time by serving the nation and society in other jobs by taking those skill sets across. We need to make sure that transition is as simple and as easy as possible. That is exactly what our Career Transition Partnership intends to achieve.
The issue of mental health has been raised a number of times by hon. Members. They are absolutely right that we need to get this right. I talked about the new strategy, our comprehensive overhaul of how we treat and look at mental health. It has four themes. The first is to promote a better attitude to remove the stigma of mental health. The second is prevention, making people aware of what to anticipate, so that they are appreciative of environments where they may be affected by mental health issues. The third is detection, understanding and finding out what is going on, through discussions and better checks of what individuals are going through. Fourthly, if you can detect it, you can treat it early and get those people back into the frontline, where they want to be, as quickly as possible. We do not want to wait. We do not want any individuals to allow these issues to incubate or for them to live in denial of a problem.
There is one spectrum of veterans about whom I am particularly concerned. We are seeing the benefits of the processes we put in place following the lessons we learned from Afghanistan and Iraq. The groupings who are more vulnerable, because the stigma was so prevalent, are those who served at the time of the Falklands. They are now in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They saw and experienced things that perhaps they still do not want to talk about. They were not educated during their time about where help could be found. It is those people whom we have a duty to reach out to and find through means other than our connections to the armed forces.
Our new approach begins at the start of any individual’s career, through promoting positive mental health and wellbeing, preventing and detecting the onset of mental illness at the earliest possibility, and treating such illnesses when they are diagnosed. I touched on the additional funds that are coming from the Budget. An extra £2 million a year is being brought in to improve mental health services for our armed forces, on top of the £20 million already committed.
As hon. Members will be aware, this is another great example of where responsibility lies not just with the Ministry of Defence. We are often compared with the United States, which has a completely different approach to this, but we have the NHS, which is the best in the world. It would not make sense to replicate that with another health service simply for our armed forces. We need to tap into and take advantage of the NHS skill sets. If people go to the NHS and it denies them support, the machine is not working and we need to ensure that that changes. It is therefore important that the MOD has a close relationship with NHS England and indeed the devolved Administrations to make sure it works right across the country and meets the healthcare needs of the armed forces community.
Healthcare in England is devolved to local clinical commissioning groups. I have touched on the issues that we have with different standards and approaches; that needs to be reconciled. Most services for all demographics, however, are commissioned and provided locally. Healthcare for devolved Administrations is devolved to those Administrations for more regional and local determination of services and is consistent with national approaches to healthcare. In England, local CCGs, working with local authorities, have the legal responsibility for planning and commissioning, and for providing appropriate health and social care for the population where they live. Those requirements and needs are measured through the respective local authority-chaired health and wellbeing boards and underpinned by the latest data on where the armed forces communities live. That is absolutely critical because, if they move from one locality to another, they do not want to be waiting for their records to catch up with them to gain the necessary treatment they deserve.
On local authorities, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Aberdeen City Council, which has just renewed its commitment to the armed forces covenant by signing a new one? This covenant will show the city’s appreciation for the work of our armed forces and veterans. It puts in place additional support to help veterans into employment; to help them and their families; and to give more new council housing to those who have served in our armed forces. Does my right hon. Friend think that that is a leading initiative that other councils should perhaps follow?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. He highlights the fact that there is different modelling around the country. He also touches on something that perhaps I can praise him for: he has bothered to understand what is going on in his patch. I hope that we all can be bothered to do that. All hon. Members should take an interest, because of the varying standards around the country, to go in and ask those questions. We have a role to play in upgrading the standards and maybe copying what is happening in his local authority.
To turn back to NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care, we have written, at national director and permanent secretary levels, to the chairs of all the health and wellbeing boards, reminding them of the need to update their strategic needs and assessments, and to use the latest annual population survey data, which reflects where the armed forces are based. The Local Government Association, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care, collects data on all local authorities that have signed the armed forces covenant. It is critical that they do their duty as well. Based on ongoing use of nationally commissioned services, as well as evidence-based research, NHS England’s transition, intervention and liaison complex mental health treatment services are continually reviewed to ensure that both capacity and capability are in place and services are reconfigured to meet both clinical demand and changes to professional practice—that relates to the point Mr Sweeney raised earlier.
The mental health complex treatment service was launched in April. It caters to the individual treatment needs of veterans at community level. This is where we need to ensure that veterans are aware of what support is available. This follows on from the introduction of the transition intervention and liaison services last year, completing the tiered approach to veterans’ mental healthcare.
In addition, there is the Veterans Trauma Network, which collects data, numbers, location and intervention types on all patients who access the service. The VTN steering group is working with the veteran patient cohort and researchers to look at the societal impacts of their injuries and interventions to inform planning and delivery reviews of the service. It is complicated to go into the weeds of the support. Sometimes people might get the impression that little is being done, but support is available, and it is so important that veterans are made aware of where that support is.
Turning to local government, I have touched on the role of the armed forces champion. Again, I encourage every single Member here to go to their local authority and ask, “Who is the armed forces champion?” Find out their name and whether their name is on the local authority’s website. Find out what they do. Are they making sure that every single guideline and rule that the council puts forward is through the prism of understanding what impact it will have on our armed forces and our armed forces community? If there is a homeless issue, what is being done, for example, to make sure that the local authority is providing for the vets who may be homeless? Typically, that is the sort of work that the armed forces champion should focus on. The more that we as Members of Parliament ask these questions, the better we will raise the bar overall.
From a housing perspective, I am pleased that earlier this year, the MOD signed a duty—a statutory requirement—with the new Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to refer individuals leaving the military to local authorities, if they are deemed by their local commanding officer to be at risk of homelessness. That is so important. It means that we should not see people who might end up becoming homeless leaving the armed forces with nowhere to go, because their plight will be flagged up as they depart.
On education, it is important to understand again that not just the armed forces, but their families, are affected by moving. If individual personnel are moved from one locality to another and they have children, this will of course have an impact on schooling and other aspects of education. This is disruptive. Any child can end up moving three or four times during their schooling, and that is not good for their education. We cannot have a situation whereby people move to a new locality and find that they do not get their school of choice. In some cases, I found, horrifically, that when special needs school support is required, individual personnel are not being given that support, and this must change.
We are providing research to understand the impact of mobility on the progression of service children. We are also looking at service children’s progression from an alliance practitioner hub perspective to bring together local partners, including schools, colleges, universities, local authorities and charities, to address the specific needs of service children in a local context. In March 2018, the alliance carried out a UK-wide consultation that identified strong common themes. These will help to improve the evidence base to inform the development of our policy, so that we make sure that we can answer these challenging questions of how we disrupt less and less the lives of children seeking education.
What is my right hon. Friend’s position on the boarding school allowance for service children? That benefits not just officers, but non-commissioned officers and soldiers, who tend to use it increasingly frequently.
All these questions get raised regularly with the Treasury. I know in my time how important this was—I am sure it was in my hon. Friend’s as well—and how important it continues to be as the basis for providing a single locality for individuals, particularly when NCOs and others are deployed abroad, because it provides the stability that they need. I will write to him in more detail, but we continue to debate this regularly with the Treasury. It is something that we recognise absolutely, and I am personally committed to making sure that it continues.
On funding for childcare, I am pleased to say that we have allocated £20 million in the Budget for facilities for service families in 40 locations around the country, and Cyprus is included as well. The English admissions code continues to recognise the mobility of service children and has provisions for them to apply for school places before they move into an area. I add that some individual personnel only have up to four months’ notice of when they move. That is shorter than the period that schools require, so I ask the Department for Education to recognise the unique circumstances that our armed forces face. They do not always have the luxury of giving extended notice of when they might move into an area, and therefore we need to say that these children must not be disadvantaged. Sometimes, they will receive only four months’ notice and the school admission authorities must be aware of the difficulties that they face.
In the financial year 2018-19, nearly £23 million will be allocated to state schools in England through the service pupil premium to benefit over 76,000 current and former service children in over 10,000 primary and secondary schools. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Defence announced the extension of the education support fund in July 2018. That will be on a limited basis and will consist of £3 million in 2018-19 and £2 million in 2019-20. The educational support fund is open to publicly funded schools, academies and free schools in the UK that are attended by service children whose parents are subject to exceptional mobility or deployment. Applications for local authorities in support of these schools can be accepted.
I know that the area of suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder is of concern to many in the House. Any suicide is a tragedy, especially when it is someone who has served our country. However, I make it clear—I know that this is a sensitive issue—that suicide does not occur in isolation. It is usually the most tragic symptom of many other issues, such as mental health issues, family breakdown, debt, unemployment or myriad other problems. It is inaccurate and, indeed, disrespectful and trivialising to link it solely with military service, but I will say that in some cases, military service plays a role, and we need to better understand the causes so that we can act to prevent further potential suicides in future.
We have set up a new suicide prevention working group to urgently look at cases involving such distress in service personnel. It will look at how to address the issues affecting those in such distress now and how to prevent others from feeling the same way. It will look at the triggers in service to ensure that all future veterans have the resilience that they need while serving and after they leave. For existing veterans, we now have, as hon. Members will be aware, a Minister responsible for suicide prevention—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price—who was appointed in October. She is also a member of the ministerial covenant and veterans board and is responsible for addressing this issue.
The Department of Health and Social Care has had a national suicide prevention strategy in place since 2012 that aims to address the causes of suicide for every civilian, not just veterans. However, veterans are identified in the strategy as requiring tailored approaches to meet their mental health needs. This has resulted in NHS England’s veterans’ mental health transition, intervention and liaison service, which has supported hundreds of veterans and their families since its launch in April 2017. This is complemented by the veterans’ mental health complex treatment service that I mentioned, which was launched in April this year to support those with the most complex needs and provide holistic support for the whole person and their family.
This very difficult area is something that I have shared with the “Five Eyes” nations. I brought together veterans Ministers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the UK to compare what we are doing better to improve our support for our service personnel and veterans. We still do not understand this in detail; we still do not understand what drives someone into that dark place. Indeed, in many cases—up to 50%—there is no indication whatsoever that people would actually take their own lives. That is exactly what happened in my own family circumstance: there was no indication that my uncle was going to take his life. It is indeed a complicated scenario for us to address. We must better understand what is going on. We must make sure that we improve our support for veterans, and we must make clear where that help lies.
I have touched on some of the key areas, but let me also highlight the tables at the back of the annual report, on page 118, which give the coding on how well—or not—we are doing.
This is a moving debate. It represents a graduation in our attempts to improve our support for our armed forces and for our veterans as well. When we look at what has happened in the past and the support that was there, I think we can be proud of the direction in which we are going, but I will be the first to say that there is much more to do. Of course, the more we can secure funds—as we do, and we are bidding for more in the next spending review—the more that helps, but if we want to inspire the next generation to think about putting on the uniform, we must ensure that we look after this generation who serve and the last generation who are now retired. The covenant is doing its work, but it must do more.
I look forward to the debate that we are about to have, and I look forward to responding to the issues and concerns that Members will raise. I commend the publication of the seventh armed forces covenant annual report, pursuant to section 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2011.
The armed forces covenant represents the solemn and enduring commitment that we owe to members of the armed forces community. Those who serve our country make so many sacrifices in defence of the UK and our interests, and they rightly deserve respect, support and fair treatment both during and after their service, along with their families at home.
The sacrifice made by our servicemen and women has of course been at the forefront of our minds recently, with the remembrance commemorations and the centenary of the armistice. However, the covenant reminds us that the debt that we owe to the armed forces community is not for a particular day or week, but runs the whole year round. Labour Members fully support the covenant and the important guarantees that underlie it, and we supported its becoming law in 2011; but, of course, simply writing it into a statute is not enough. What matters is whether it is making a difference on the ground. Are our veterans actually receiving that special consideration when accessing healthcare? Do the children of personnel really experience no disadvantage when it comes to their schooling? On that count, a lot more needs to be done, and I want to touch on some of that this afternoon.
Let me begin with healthcare. I welcome some of the steps that have been taken in recent years to try to improve awareness of what the covenant requires of health professionals. The Welsh Government recently issued guidance to all health boards on veterans’ priority healthcare, and knowledge of the covenant now forms part of the membership exam for the Royal College of General Practitioners. However, the Royal British Legion has expressed concern about a lack of awareness and understanding of the policy of priority treatment, as well as an inability to measure implementation and a lack of clarity about the Government’s interpretation of the policy, and the Defence Committee has noted confusion over how the principle of priority treatment should be implemented among both clinicians and veterans. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us what more is being done to improve understanding of this important guarantee.
When it comes to mental health, the picture for personnel, veterans and families is worrying. The latest families continuous attitude survey has found that four in 20 of the families who sought mental health treatment experienced difficulties or were unable to access treatment, and we know that that is sadly true among the population at large. Our mental health services have never been under more pressure. Funding for mental health services in England has been cut by over 8% since 2010, and the number of mental health nurses has fallen by 6,600. The Defence Committee has also found that
“it is still taking too long for veterans to access treatment when they need it”.
As was mentioned during last week’s debate on the veterans strategy, it is important to be clear that rates of mental illness among personnel and veterans are generally no higher than those among the population at large. However, support must be available to those who need it, and it must be delivered quickly and effectively.
Local authorities are key to this topic, as they are responsible for housing and social services. Does my hon. Friend agree that they must be 100% behind it in the future, so that our servicemen and women are given the best possible support?
I absolutely agree that we want the full support of all our local authorities, and our health boards, but I must put on record again that they have experienced very severe cuts under this Government. That is an issue, particularly when we are trying to develop new initiatives and make progress.
We know that the requirements of service life do not just affect personnel. They can also have an impact on families, including children. We do not always recognise just how difficult and stressful being the spouse or partner of a member of the armed forces can be, given the loneliness, the upheaval of moving house frequently and trying to get the children settled, and so on. I congratulate the women behind Forces Wives Challenge, whom I met yesterday and who are raising awareness of the problems. Early next year, some of them are going to Chile to climb the highest volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado. Just as important, however, is the fact that they are working with partners and wives across the country using challenges—in their words, “enabling ordinary women to do extraordinary things”—to bring women together, foster a sense of community, and help women to deal with issues such as loneliness.
One particular challenge arises when service families have to move, which can have a knock-on effect on schooling. I welcome the changes in the common transfer file—for instance, the inclusion of more contextual information. That should ultimately help children with the process of moving schools, but it is clear that some issues remain. In its comments on this year’s covenant report, the families federations identify a “distinct spike” in the number of school admissions issues raised with them over the past year, and say that recent surveys show that
“finding school places is a key source of anxiety for Service families.”
Some local authorities are clearly taking a proactive approach to dealing with the problem. For example, Rhondda Cynon Taf council employs a dedicated forces education officer, who is himself a former soldier and a serving reservist, to work closely with forces families and schools to ensure that the children of personnel are properly supported.
Of course, as the families federations themselves point out, schools continue to be challenged by funding constraints—despite the Chancellor’s promise of cash to cover “little extras”—but I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us what work his Department is doing now to ensure further improvements in time for next year’s report.
We know that the quality of housing for personnel and their families is a matter of real concern. Members will be familiar with the appalling service provided by the contractor CarillionAmey. Many of us have heard at first hand from personnel and families about unacceptable delays to repairs and the poor quality of maintenance. I myself have met representatives of Amey, which has taken over the contract following the collapse of Carillion earlier this year. They assured me—as, no doubt, they have assured the Minister—that they are working hard to improve the service because they recognise that things have simply not been working well enough, but the fact is that there is a very long way to go. The latest families continuous attitude survey found that barely a third of families are satisfied with the response to requests for maintenance and repair work.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is the issue of privatising services, but there is also a need to watch what those contractors are doing and keep an eye on whether the service providers are actually providing the service. That is the challenge to the Minister; this is a real issue in the defence sector at the moment. Unfortunately, only three in 10 families are satisfied with the quality of that work, which is the lowest level for at least eight years.
However, the use of a private contractor to deliver maintenance services cannot absolve the Government of their responsibility for overseeing—or failing to oversee—the contract properly. Indeed, the Defence Committee has concluded that the record of the MOD and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation in managing service accommodation has been “lamentable”.
Looking to the future, the MOD is currently in the process of taking bids for the four regional facilities management contracts, with a decision expected in February. Will the Minister set out how the Department will ensure that whoever takes over the running of MOD housing will be held to the highest standards? What assurances are being sought and what penalties will be in place to deter poor performance?
The Department is also still working on the future accommodation model. That causes concern to those living in service family accommodation, with the families federations recording confusion, anxiety and uncertainty over the past two years. I have said many times that the Opposition do not want to see personnel being forced into the private rented sector, with all the additional costs and insecurity that could result, but can the Minister at least provide some certainty to families about when they will learn more about what is being planned?
One of the most worrying trends that we have witnessed over the past few years is the fall in morale of serving personnel and the perception that the overall offer to those who serve is declining. Morale has fallen steadily since 2010 across both officer and other ranks, and, very worryingly, the proportion of Royal Marines who rate their service morale as high has more than halved in the last two years alone.
The 2010 data coincide with an end to the most regular and intense operations, and it is indeed a perversity of the mindset of those of us who have served that we are happiest when we have some combat operations to go away on, so I cannot help but feel that the dip in morale since is a consequence of that, as well as other factors that I am sure the hon. Lady is about to mention in her speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valid point.
The number of training exercises that have been cancelled will not have helped matters, nor will the months of leaked reports on plans to cut the Marines as part of the modernising defence programme. The state of morale should concern us all, so I would be grateful if the Minister set out what he feels is behind this worrying fall, and more importantly, what he plans to do about it, because low morale will only compound the problems that we are already experiencing with retention in the forces. Personnel numbers are down across each of the services compared with last year.
Satisfaction with pay and pensions is the lowest ever recorded, and while I am of course pleased that the Government have finally agreed to lift the pay cap, this alone will not make up for seven years of below-inflation rises, and of course the Treasury has refused to provide the money centrally, meaning that we are likely to see yet more defence cuts.
As we had a debate on veterans last week, I will keep my comments on specific veterans issues brief, but I want to raise with the Minister my very considerable concerns about further privatisation of the veterans service. Members from across the House have talked about Capita’s abject failure to deliver the recruitment contract and Ministers’ seeming unwillingness to sack the company, so would the Minister kindly explain to the House why, given the problems with other contracts, his Department now proposes to hand over yet more services, including the armed forces compensation scheme, the war pension scheme, the Veterans Welfare Service and the Medal Office, to private contractors, who inevitably will be tempted to put profit before serving our veterans? And Members do not need me to tell them who one of the bidders is in this case. Will the Minister put a stop to this now, and have a complete rethink?
As a former adjutant, I agree very much that the best recruiters are serving military personnel and I think that the old-fashioned recruiting sergeant does that much better than a civilian, but that model of recruitment meant lots of people being appropriated from regimental duty to go off and recruit, causing all sorts of tensions when we were trying to fill our order of battle within a unit. So while I understand the hon. Lady’s point, the MOD needed to make a difficult decision between operational effectiveness and the recruiting operation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am asking why we are privatising more services, including the particular ones I mentioned. I would like the Minister to explain why the Government are not considering putting a stop to this and having a complete rethink.
At the heart of all these issues is the need to ensure that the promises made in the covenant are being effectively delivered in a way that benefits the forces community— regulars, reservists, veterans and families.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that there is a disproportionate number of veterans in Northern Ireland—not just those, like the Minister, who served in Operation Banner, but those who served in other sectors? Does the hon. Lady feel—as I, other Northern Ireland Members, and, I suspect, the Minister, feel—that there is a need for more proportionate funding for veterans in Northern Ireland because of the large scale of service that there has been? In terms of looking after people, the service of those from Northern Ireland needs particular attention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a valid point, and we are very grateful to all those from Northern Ireland who have served our forces so well.
Local authorities are responsible for many of the services that fulfil the covenant’s guarantees, yet they have borne the brunt of much of the Government’s austerity programme. Many councils are doing their very best, despite devastating budget cuts from central Government, and I pay tribute to the armed forces champions who do so much in councils up and down the country to promote the armed forces covenant—and look forward to welcoming some of our Labour champions to Parliament on Monday. However, as the Minister has said,
“we know there is much more still to be achieved, particularly in ensuring consistency of outcomes”,
and I think that there is a discussion to be had on whether some aspects of the covenant should be formalised as statutory duties to ensure that they are being delivered properly, because ultimately what matters are not the warm words of politicians, but the real-life experience of our forces community, who do so much for us all and who deserve the very best.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We have been informed that the Prime Minister is to make a statement to this House at 3 o’clock. However, I understand that the Prime Minister has already spoken to the press outside No. 10 Downing Street. I consider that to be a gross discourtesy to this House.
Secondly, I understand that an agreement has been reached between the Prime Minister and the European Union on a draft declaration. I would have thought that that draft declaration would be available to this House, but as of 10 minutes ago it is not available in the Table Office. Will you ensure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that that draft declaration is made available well before the Prime Minister gets to her feet at 3 o’clock?
It is good practice to share such information and there is still time. If Her Majesty’s Opposition have got to listen to a statement they should be well informed in order to be able to put the right questions. I also say that this House should be told first, not the TV studios; Members of Parliament are here to be told first, not everyone else. We know that that is best practice and it should be the practice: whoever they are, they should come to this House first, and then by all means go to the TV studios. The hon. Gentleman has put that on the record, and I hope that anything that needs to be printed and produced will be ready for the 3 o’clock statement. We do have time, and I am sure that message has gone out loud and clear, and I am sure the Whips will be dealing with it very quickly.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I confirm that, in coming to the House and presenting the ninth annual armed forces covenant report, I did not go to the media beforehand, but came here first?
On a point of order, The outworking of the statement that we are due to hear at 3 o’clock this afternoon is, I imagine, that this important consideration of our armed forces covenant will be curtailed. Can you confirm whether the intention is to have the winding-up speeches in this debate before the Prime Minister’s statement, or do you envisage its proceeding beyond the point of interruption? What are the plans for full consideration of the covenant statement?
In fairness, that is also in the hands of Members such as your good self, who have put in to speak. They can help the House to finish this debate ready for the statement. I am sure that the Whips will work closely to ensure that that happens. Looking at the time, I am sure that everything will come on time, as predicted and as, I would say, now planned.
In view of the unexpected extra performance by the Prime Minister this afternoon, I shall endeavour to confine my contribution to this debate to one specific area, but let me begin by putting on the record the delight of members of the Defence Committee at the success of one of our members, Mrs Moon, in being elected president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. That is not only a feather in the United Kingdom’s cap, but a well-deserved recognition of the hon. Lady’s many years of dedicated support for the cause of defence in general and NATO in particular. We are absolutely delighted for her.
I wish also to record my thanks to another member of the Committee, my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, who is not here this afternoon but who was here last Thursday, deputising for me. He made an admirably comprehensive speech, in which he touched on the issue I will speak to today: the plight of 200 to 300 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension on remarriage or cohabitation and who have not had it restored. I had not imagined that, only seven days after having to miss that debate, I would have the opportunity in this debate on the armed forces covenant report to make amends. Clearly, there is a high degree of interest in the armed forces in the Government, or perhaps their attention is somewhat distracted by Brexit concerns; either way, we must make the most of the opportunities.
I mentioned how fortunate I am in the calibre of members of the Defence Committee; it is worth pointing out also that we as a country are fortunate in the calibre of our defence ministerial team. They are a strong team. We have a Secretary of State who, although new to the subject, has shown himself not only willing and ready to listen to those who have been acquainted with it for many years, but also determined—if one can persuade him of the rightness of an issue—to go out there and fight to put a new policy into practice. That is especially true in relation to the inadequate defence budget. I hope he will redouble his efforts to rectify that woeful situation.
We are also fortunate in our two Ministers in the Commons and our representation in the House of Lords, but I do not envy—I suspect no one would—the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, for the sheer range and complexity of the matters with which he has to deal, although there is no doubt that he has mastered his brief. When we compare the distribution of ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence with other Departments of similar prestige, I do not understand why we have only one Minister of State. Personally, I think it would be good if the Veterans Minister were to be redesignated to Minister of State level, not only because of the obvious ability of the present occupant, but because of the strong message it would send to the veterans community about the importance and the status of their concerns.
Other matters deserved equal attention today. We have heard about the legal hounding of Northern Ireland veterans and other veterans of different campaigns; that is an ongoing matter. Also, at some point it would be right for the House to consider the Home Office’s failure to allocate sufficient British passports to veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Royal Navy. That injustice needs to be rectified. However, as I said, in the time available to me today I will concentrate on war widows, and I will do so slightly unusually—in their own words.
First, I remind the House of the terms of the covenant itself, which the Minister read out. The words relevant to my remarks are the following:
“the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families…
Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved.”
Back in May, I had the pleasure of meeting Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. We discussed the plight of 200 to 300 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension and did not have it reinstated when others were more fortunate.
I see the hon. Member for Bridgend has just taken her place. Sadly, she missed the tribute paid to her achievement in becoming president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, but she is here to hear me reiterate it. I hope she will contribute to the debate.
I am glad to see that she will—very good. We look forward to that.
Very recently—it arrived a few days before last week’s debate, which is why I was so anxious that the matter be flagged up—Judith sent me something I had asked for in the course of our conversation: a concise summary of the situation and some personal recollections and reflections by individual war widows. I intend to put those on the record today.
First, the summary. This is how the commissioner spells out the situation:
“If your spouse died or left Military or War Service before
From 1st April 2015 if your spouse died, left Military or War Service after
to date this group do not receive their War Pension or compensation.”
There is an anomaly, which is that if a person who was unlucky enough to fall outside the appropriate date range were now to divorce their other half, their husband or wife, the pension would be reinstated, and if they were then to remarry the very same person, the pension would not be taken away. That is, frankly, bonkers. It is basically creating a perverse incentive on people who, by definition, have already suffered trauma and tragedy to part from the person with whom they have found renewed happiness and go through a charade of this sort if they wish to have the pension permanently reinstated.
The Chair of the Select Committee is right not only to highlight that anomaly but to press the point that the moral case has been won—we just need to see the corresponding action. There is a further perverse anomaly. In Northern Ireland, under Operation Banner, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary served and died alongside members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and other regiments. Widows of RUC men who were killed, of whom there are 302, have had this issue resolved, yet the bereaved widows of service members who may have died alongside RUC service personnel have not, to date, had a resolution.
My excellent friend, for that is what he is—he is another pillar of strength to me on the Defence Committee—will be glad to know that among the examples I intend to quote are several widows who lost a husband serving in the Ulster Defence Regiment and who are in precisely that anomalous position.
“He died instantly as a boobytrap bomb exploded underneath him. We were stationed in Germany at the time of John’s deployment. Within two days of his death my three month old son and I were put on a flight back to England, leaving behind our life, home and friends to face an uncertain future. With my mum’s help and support I was eventually able to move into a small home of my own and begin to rebuild my life. This is where I received my first ‘inspection’.
In the early 70s War Widows were visited by inspectors to ensure they were not living with another man whilst in receipt of their compensation pension. I felt degraded by this. Life was lonely as a young women with a baby and over time I missed the family life I so tragically had taken from me. I missed my son having a father, I missed the closeness and friendship of a husband.
After years alone I was blessed with a second chance of happiness but felt saddened that my pension would be withdrawn on remarriage as this was a tangible link to John and our previous life together. I also felt this action demeaned John’s sacrifice and that somehow I was no longer a War Widow. However, I had a choice to make and I chose to be part of a loving family again with the security and warmth that it would bring my son and I.
When going through the process of having my pension revoked I spoke to many officials and was insulted when one of them told me ‘not to worry, another man will now look after you.’
Once more I felt let down as I would have to start my new relationship not as an equal but financially dependent on my new husband.
As was stated in 2015 this was a choice that should not have been forced on War Widows. I was personally heartbroken when I was told that pension changes in 2015 had left me behind. The utter disbelief that the government didn’t really mean ALL War Widows would now have their pensions for life was unbearable. These changes made me feel like a second class War Widow and I have now been made to relive the pain and grief of 1973 every day. I cannot and will not accept that John’s sacrifice is less worthy than others.”
My right hon. Friend has just read out a very touching story. John would expect his country to look after his widow for life. It is a very simple matter. Let us correct it now.
I entirely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. Of all 650 Members of this House, he knows better than anyone, in personal terms, the devastation these killings left behind. That is why I intend to read out several more extracts before concluding. Mr Deputy Speaker, please indicate if you feel I am going on too long.
Okay, I will do my best. I do not intend to elaborate over and above the words, which speak for themselves.
Muriel, the widow of Jimmy, writes:
“My husband was 40 years old when he was murdered and I was left a widow at 37 with 5 children. Jimmy gave his life in defence of this country and I believe I should have the recognition that I am a war widow. It should make no difference that he died in 1977 and not on another date that the government has decided qualifies widows for pensions.
My husband was murdered because he put on a uniform and tried to uphold law and order. He died in his own home when gunmen shot him at our front door. I have had to live with the horror of this and our family has suffered terribly but instead of feeling that the government recognises our sacrifice we feel betrayed and that we are a nuisance asking for money the government says it can’t afford. I felt I had done something wrong when I remarried and tried to rebuild my life, as if everything that I went through meant nothing.
I don’t even get a full state pension because I paid married woman’s national insurance and I often think I should have been better advised by the MoD who should have given more priority to my welfare. I am a war widow and should be acknowledged as such and the government must do the decent thing and reinstate the pension for those of us whose lives were destroyed so that democracy could flourish.”
Now I come to a daughter, Elizabeth, who says:
“I am disappointed and saddened that I am even writing this… My Father”—
“was a member of the UDR and he was shot dead when aged 40 years in 1981 doing his civilian job.”
I will not go through the events that happened, but Elizabeth continues:
“Each Remembrance Day and on my Dad’s anniversary, we remember him with pride. The impact of my Dad’s murder was severe, my Mum was left to bring up 3 children, I was aged 11 years. This was very difficult for my Mum both financially and emotionally. We all as a family still struggle today.
When she remarried her war pension was taken away from her. This is an absolute disgrace. We as children were still orphaned. It is a struggle for my Mum. She has no financial security in her later years and she can’t help her family the way she would like to. My Dad would be extremely saddened at the way the MoD have treated us.”
That is the very point made a few moments ago by my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart. Elizabeth continues:
“I would also like to add that the aftercare is a disgrace as there actually isn’t any aftercare. When I enquired at the MoD about the pension being reinstated I was told no but if my Mum divorced her husband and then remarried him again she would get it back. How morally wrong is this? It is ridiculous that she is being penalised because of when my Father was murdered and for when she remarried. The pension should be reinstated and a full apology given for the way my Mum and other widows have been treated.”
I wish to thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, particularly for the leadership he gives those of us who serve on that Committee. The more he reads out, the more it becomes absolutely clear that Governments are happy to write names on memorials and to make soundbites in this Chamber, but they are not willing to allow the country to maintain its financial commitment and promises to war widows and their children to mitigate for their lost life. As parliamentarians, should we not take that into our hands, perhaps as the Committee, by putting forward a private Member’s Bill?
That is a wonderful idea, and it is exactly the sort of constructive suggestion I would expect from the hon. Lady. I suspect that at the root of this situation is probably not a flaw in the Ministry of Defence, but a problem being raised by people from the Treasury saying, “If we do something for this group, we’ll have to do something for another group. We will be opening some sort of Pandora’s box.” And so on and so on. I say, frankly: if that is the argument, they should hang their heads in shame.
Although I think I have already made the point quite forcefully, I intend, if I may, to read out two or three more of these extracts, so that the point cannot be escaped, because every one of these stories has a different dimension. I hope that is acceptable. If I start to see urgent signals from those on the Front Bench when I really need to get a move on—[Interruption.] I am getting a few of them now, so I shall do this as concisely as possible.
I come to the case of Margaret, whose first husband, William, was a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. He was murdered—blown up—in 1986. She says:
“At the time we didn’t know if we would even be able to have William’s coffin open due the extent of injuries…in the end all we could see was his face, with a wee cut just above his right eye. No one has ever been convicted of William’s murder.
She talks about the “rituals” that they always had to go through for their own security, and the circumstances in which what happened took place. She continues:
“I am now happily remarried to my second husband, John and we have two sons. When I married my second husband John in 1993 I automatically lost my pension. To me this was highly unfair, as older widows and now younger widows have got to keep their pensions, what is the difference, between widows like them and me? I have endured the same trials and tribulations as them.
I detest writing this letter and find it extremely difficult, to me it’s like a begging letter, yes I have endured financial hardships in the past and if my pension was reinstated it would mean a lot to me financially, it would be extremely useful for my two sons’
further education and for repairs to our home. But, to me, it would be some acknowledgement from the Government that they realise and appreciate that William laid down his life for his country and for our people, and that although I have remarried I still bear the scars of the past.”
The final extract I will read, given the unexpected time pressure—I hope the other ladies will forgive me—is from Eileen, whose husband David served part-time in the UDR and was murdered in 1977. She says:
“I was so proud of my husband and how he sacrificed his life to try to keep to his community safe at nights and weekends. When he was on duty I waited at home in bed until he arrived safely back home. Those were worrying times for me.
I felt the need to serve my country with pride and also allowed my family to make a positive contribution to maintaining peace and I became a member of the UDR in 1984.”
So this lady, seven years after losing her husband in the defence of her country, joined the same regiment herself. Does that not make us feel proud of her and does it not make us all feel ashamed of the way that she and the other women whose stories I have related today have been treated?
Let me echo the comments made by the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee and congratulate our colleague on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mrs Moon, on her elevation in becoming the NATO Parliamentary Assembly president. I am sure she will serve in that role with great distinction. All I can say is—I was there when it happened.
I would not want people to think I had already got above myself, in not being here for the start of the debate. I had a visit from members of Parc prison, in my constituency, who went to the Ministry of Justice to be given an award for their work with young prisoners with autism, and I felt they deserved my time. This was not a case of neglecting this debate; I got here as quickly as I could and I do apologise to colleagues.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on a topic that affects every Member of this House. Those who are serving or who have served in our armed forces are owed a great debt of gratitude by us all, and they deserve to be supported and looked after, both in service and after they have left.
The core principles of the armed forces covenant set out to ensure that these individuals suffer no disadvantage compared with other citizens when it comes to accessing services and that, where appropriate, they are given special consideration. However, according to some of the personal accounts I have heard, that is not always their experience. We have heard a long list of other examples from people across the country for whom this is not their experience either. We know that that must change, and I welcome the Minister’s recognition that change was inevitable and that continuous improvement in the support for veterans was required.
The Ministry of Defence is currently struggling to recruit and retain the personnel we need. This year, the British Army was 4,000 troops short of the 82,000 it was set to have; only 7,500 were recruited. It is 2,000 shy of the 10,000 required to maintain troop numbers. The total number of trained personnel based in Scotland dropped by almost 2% in 2016, to 9,970; with a drop of almost 19% in the officer ranks. Across the rest of the UK, the picture is no better, with an astonishing 10% drop in the number of new recruits. The Public Accounts Committee report published in September reported skills shortages in more than 100 critical trades. All of this leads us to see a jigsaw that will undoubtedly have an impact on existing personnel, through increased workloads and pressure, not to mention an alarming lack of capability to respond to the changing threats facing the UK.
On remuneration, the Government say that they are moving away from the 1% pay cap for public sector workers, which is to be welcomed. However, the Defence Committee noted that
“no additional funding will be made available to the MoD for increases above this level for Service personnel”.
Those who serve in our armed forces are exceptionally skilled and committed people, and they absolutely deserve better than what they are getting at the moment. Furthermore, if we are to have any hope of attracting the talent and skills we need to the services, the MOD has to do better than the decidedly unattractive package currently on offer.
Other Members have talked about housing. For years, service personnel and their families have had to put up with poor maintenance standards that would simply not be tolerated in the local government sector. In June, the Defence Committee stated:
This disrespect of armed forces personnel and their families is one of the reasons that people are increasingly leaving the services. Ministers must urgently grip the dysfunctional organisation and lay out an action plan for radical improvement.
One of the issues brought to my attention by John Allison is the problem with local authorities’ residency rules for allowing people to move from the military into areas where they might not have had a previous residence in order to set up home. That is resulting in people being denied housing accommodation. This should have been dealt with in the armed forces covenant. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to ensure that we do not have a homelessness problem among our veterans when they leave the military?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point, and I will discuss what is happening in that regard in Scotland a bit later in my speech.
Ministers must get a grip of the current situation if they are to convince service personnel and their families that they are valued and that their housing needs will be cared for appropriately in future. The welfare of families is often challenged directly by the difficult lifestyles of those who serve, and considerations relating to the continuity of education for children, support for spouses, financial advice and family accommodation must be taken more seriously.
I would suggest that veterans in Scotland have a somewhat different experience of accessing public services from those south of the border, and I make no apology for that. It is a thoroughly good thing, and if we can learn from other parts of the UK in order to improve matters for everyone, surely that is the best way forward. The Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh established a £1.3 million Scottish veterans fund to support projects that provide a wide range of advice and practical support to veterans. As well as having a Minister responsible for veterans in the Scottish Government, we have appointed a Scottish veterans commissioner—the first such position anywhere in the UK. Our commissioner produced a report on veterans’ health and wellbeing earlier this year, the recommendations of which the Scottish Government are taking forward.
Members have mentioned the importance of armed forces champions, and I want to say a big thank you to my local authority armed forces champion, Councillor Rod Cavanagh from Fife Council, who does a tremendous job. I am sure that his commitment and efforts are being replicated across the country by our other armed forces champions to keep the needs of their armed forces at the heart of local government, alongside the work that we do here to keep these matters at the heart of central Government.
The care and health of our veterans is of huge importance, particularly in the area of mental health, which the Minister spoke enthusiastically and sincerely about. Our society is becoming more open to discussing mental health issues in general, but we must ensure that the specific concerns of veterans are included within this evolution. The armed forces charity SSAFA found in 2016 that 40% of working-age veterans said that they were suffering from depression, that 36% felt they had a lack of hope or purpose, and that 30% reported mental health problems. SSAFA also found that loneliness and isolation were widely reported. I welcome the £10 million of further support allocated to addressing the mental health needs of veterans at the last Budget, and I hope that that line of funding continues to be a priority area for addressing the needs of veterans.
I should like to return to the question of housing and homelessness. There are varying estimates of the number of veterans who might be homeless, ranging from 7,000 to 13,000 across the UK. It is shameful in this day and age that homelessness should be the future for any citizen, never mind for people who have served their country. Members may be aware that, in Scotland, all local authorities have a duty to provide permanent accommodation for all applicants who are unintentionally homeless. The code of guidance on homelessness in Scotland states that housing applications from veterans should be treated sympathetically and that close links should be made between the armed forces and local bodies to help to support those re-entering civilian life. The Scottish Government have also recently updated their Scottish housing guide for people leaving the armed forces and ex-service personnel, which contains advice on all accommodation options for veterans.
There are a lot of really good organisations already providing support to armed forces personnel and veterans in Scotland, and we all know who they are, but I would welcome the development of a more comprehensive support network for veterans and, in particular, for those who feel that they have absolutely nowhere to turn. I look forward to seeing the new tri-service defence holistic transition policy when it is published next month, and I hope that it will go some way towards filling the gaps.
My SNP colleagues and I support the creation on an armed forces union to accommodate the wide range of interests, concerns and identities within this community. We owe our armed forces personnel a voice in the development of policies that serve and support them and their work, and this should take the form of a permanent organisation that can readily represent and consult current and former personnel. The body should be able to be truly representative. It would not be a trade union in the sense that people would be able to go on strike. Rather, it would be like the bodies that support police officers, for example. Such a body could support our armed forces personnel to enable them to raise genuine concerns and areas of interest affecting all serving personnel in a mature and adult way, to ensure that their voice was heard.
The armed forces covenant has provided a central focus for developing a veterans policy, but there is still much more work to be done. We need to do all we can to ensure that our veterans and serving personnel feel included in the decisions that are made on their behalf to help them back into civilian life. I speak for all my colleagues on these Benches when I say that we stand ready to support any measures that the Minister might wish to bring in, so long as the issues around pay, housing and support for our armed forces personnel and veterans are at the heart of the discussions.
It is a pleasure to follow Douglas Chapman. I, too, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, who made a powerful speech. I agree with the sentiments behind everything that he said, and I hope that all hon. Members will support his campaign to ensure that war widows get their pensions returned to them.
When the armed forces covenant was established in 2011, it was wildly welcomed nationally and in my constituency, where we play host to an important Army base and an infantry training range. We also play host to 160 Brigade. Consequently, we are home to a large number of serving and retired Army personnel, together with their families. Added to this, just 15 miles across the border and Offa’s Dyke in the constituency of my hon. Friend Bill Wiggin, we are proud to have another important Army base where the SAS are based.
As we know, the covenant outlines the nation’s moral obligation to respect and support current and former members of the armed forces and their families. More particularly, the covenant commits the nation to ensure that those
“who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.”
I am delighted to report that the community in and around mid-Wales has been supporting military personnel and their families for decades, if not centuries. We are home to the military museum at the barracks in Brecon. The barracks are under the threat of closure, but I shall not discuss that now; I shall save that for another occasion. The barracks play host to a wonderful collection, which features the South Wales Borderers, whose conflict in the Anglo-Zulu war was immortalised in the film “Zulu.” It is very important to our nation.
We also play host to a Gurkha troop. As one walks around Brecon, it warms the heart to see Nepalese people working behind the counter of the local supermarket and involved in our local town council. They are involved in all aspects of society. It did not take a formal covenant to get that support in my constituency, which is like so many constituencies that host Army, Navy and Air Force bases. People in our country naturally accept and adopt everything to do with our servicemen and women and their families. That is the right thing to do. The covenant has ensured that the whole of society supports it, from national Government, local government and devolved Government to voluntary and charitable bodies, businesses and private organisations, and including the actions of individuals and community groups, so this joined-up approach can only and must only be a good thing.
Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most, such as the bereaved families, together with the injured—when I say injured, I mean both physically injured and mentally injured. It has taken some time for us in this country to understand that the mental damage caused to so many veterans is real and is on a larger scale than was first anticipated and accepted. We must talk about these issues publicly, and I am delighted that under our Prime Minister, and before when she was Home Secretary, we have now been doing that. Until quite recently, it was not accepted that PTSD was an issue, but it is a very serious one.
On the theme of mental health, I wish briefly to talk about a constituent of mine whose case I have been involved in for the past three years. Gus Hales has been in the public eye a little bit recently, because he has been on hunger strike in the town of Newport—he lives just outside Builth Wells in my constituency. Gus served as a soldier in the Falklands conflict and in other conflicts around the world, but he has not had the treatment that he rightly deserves. Just before Armistice Day, I sat on a grass verge in Newport, which is a two-hour drive from my constituency, outside Combat Stress, with which Gus has an issue, in a most undignified manner, because there I was sitting next to a gentleman who had served this country and who was on hunger strike because of the complaints he had. Those complaints were very justified.
The Minister has already been praised, but I wish to praise him some more, because he has not only spent three quarters of an hour in a telephone conversation with Gus, but had several conversations and meetings with me. Sitting on that grass verge outside Combat Stress, it was heartening to hear Gus praise our Minister, who showed not only empathy but complete and total understanding of Gus’s case and his issue. I thank the Minister for everything that he has done, because believe me it has made my life a lot easier and it was comforting to hear Gus say what he said about him.
My hon. Friend has raised such an important case. Combat stress does such an amazing job, but in the provision of support for our armed forces, people occasionally fall through the gaps. We must make sure that that does not happen. I formally apologise to Gus Hales for what he has gone through. As my hon. Friend said, Gus and I have spoken on the phone, and I stand ready to meet him again. Combat Stress has put its hand up to say yes, it got it wrong with Mr Hales. I thank him for his service and for all he has done for our country. We must learn from this case. If anybody else has received a level of support that is questionable and not what we would expect, please come forward. Let us learn from this, move forward and make sure that we support our brave veterans to the standard that they expect.
I thank the Minister for his wise words and his support for this case. There is criticism of Combat Stress, but I am sure most people in the House will remember that just a few months ago I reinvented the Lords against Commons pigeon race—it was one of the great events of 2018 in this place and will be remembered for decades to come, I am sure—and the charity that we raised money for and to which so many Members of this House and of the other place donated was Combat Stress. It was the designated charity, and it does a tremendous amount of work, as do so many charities. Nevertheless, mistakes were made, as the Minister said. He has ordered a review of Combat Stress and the period when mistakes were made and veterans slipped through the net. I can only praise him again for that. I must also say to any veteran listening out there: please do not stay away from Combat Stress, because just like so many other charities, it is still doing an enormous amount of tremendous work for our veterans. That work will continue, because we must not forget that PTSD does not happen just like that; it can happen 10, 15 or 20 years after people have retired—after our servicemen and women have seen conflict. It is very important that Combat Stress continues to offer that support.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Gus served in the Falklands. I do not know whether part of the problem that Gus is experiencing today is because of that service, but is the hon. Gentleman aware of the support that the Falkland Islanders still give to veterans? They subsidise flights so that veterans can return to the Falklands, and they give them support in revisiting some of the battlefields and help them to work through some of the trauma that they experienced. I wonder whether that might help Gus. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I can give him further details later.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I congratulate her on her election referred to earlier. A Member of the Legislative Assembly flew over from the Falkland Islands when they heard that Gus was on hunger strike, and they have been involved in his case.
Among the many people who have been involved in Gus’s case are my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard, who is not present, and my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan. I thank them for their support for Gus and, indeed, their work with Combat Stress. I pay tribute to the president of Combat Stress, General Sir Peter Wall, who has gone to Newport in Shropshire on several occasions to meet Gus. Ironically, he was previously Gus’s commanding officer, so it is wonderful that he has offered that support. A great deal is happening, but I wanted to raise Gus’s case because he has done a lot and has caught the public eye. It is important now that the Department and we MPs get behind our veterans and make sure that nobody else has to go on a hunger strike to bring these issues to our attention.
Combat Stress is not the only charity out there, of course. The Royal British Legion was very much to the fore in the run-up to Armistice Day. I also wish to pay tribute to Care after Combat, which is unfortunately one of those charities that some people stay away from, because it primarily deals with people who are in prison. They are ex-servicemen and women who, in the main, have mental health issues. They are in prison because of drug and drink-related issues and because they cannot cope with society. Care after Combat does such a good job and is one of the only charities to take these people on board, take them under its wing and look after them. I pay exceptional tribute to Jim Davidson, who is of course well known in many other theatres, not necessarily the theatre of the House of Commons. He has done a superb job of taking these servicemen and women under his wing as chief executive of that charity. He does a vital job.
I am being pressed by the Whips because of the time, but before I sit down, let me give the House a statistic for Care after Combat. In the first year, the reoffending rate is 8% when Care after Combat gets involved, compared with the national average of 45%. That just shows how a little bit of money goes a long way with such a superb charity.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We in Wales can be especially proud that Parc Prison, which largely takes prisoners from Wales, has established the endeavour unit, which particularly focuses on veterans. The work that it has been able to do with building veterans’ links with charities, such as Care after Combat and many others, has turned veterans’ lives around and changed their reoffending rates. That is something of which we in Wales can be very proud, and I am particularly proud that it is happening at Parc in Bridgend.
I am a spokesman for Care after Combat. Jim Davidson is a very good friend of mine. Care after Combat becomes even more effective when it gets funded. It has been funded by the Government previously, and I hope that they will look very kindly on re-funding the charity, which does such sterling work.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has just stolen my summing-up line, but I can think of no greater person to make that plea than my gallant and hon. Friend. Care after Combat does deserve to be supported; it has been supported in the past. There was very welcome news in the Budget of an additional £10 million for the armed forces covenant fund, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Unfortunately, Care after Combat does not fall within the rules to get that money. I urge the Minister to help in any way, because this is a worthwhile charity, as so many of them are, and it is certainly a charity that many of my Government colleagues, and I am sure Opposition Members as well, think deserves ongoing support.
The armed forces covenant is an extremely important document not just because it recognises the value that armed forces personnel have in public life, but because it recognises our duty of care to servicemen and women and their families. It is that duty of care that has motivated me to address this debate on the subject of service family accommodation.
A life in the military is transient and uncertain. It means moving across the country and, in some cases, across borders. For service personnel, it means setting up a home and a life in a place, with the knowledge that they may have to repeat the process again very soon. It means them having little or no choice about their location and type of accommodation. Given this sacrifice, as well as the other sacrifices that our servicemen and women make every day, it is reasonable for all service families to expect that, wherever they are stationed, they are guaranteed a secure, affordable and comfortable home in which to live and raise their children. As a nation, to meet our obligations enshrined in the armed forces covenant, we need to do all in our power to see that this very practical and important need is met.
The armed forces covenant states that service accommodation should be
“good quality, affordable and suitably located.”
I attest that this component of the covenant not only is unmet, but has been categorically failed. In 1996, the Ministry of Defence sold off 57,400 service family homes to Annington, a subsidiary of the Japanese bank, Nomura. Annington has since been sold to private equity firm Terra Firma for a profit—thought to be in the region of £2 billion. This has caused not only a serious black hole in the MOD’s finances, but great concern among armed forces families about their financial future. The ripple effect of the decision is significant. Annington has sold off 20,000 homes over the past two decades. Many forces families who are living in those houses were told that they could not stay—even if they had the means to buy those houses—as they were contractually obliged to return them to their original state. For many, their only option was to queue in a field for hours without any guarantee over what house they would get.
The contract agreed by the Government in 1996 allowed a rent review in 2021—just three years from now. There is nothing to stop Annington from charging market rent. Although we know that the MOD would like rents to fall, Annington expects them to rise significantly from 2021. The MOD could hand back the cost, but that would be very expensive. There are very few cards to play. Annington holds the monopoly. Indeed, rents are already rising significantly and new service families are already paying 2020 rents.
In 2016, Annington put 147 houses in Hawe barracks up for auction on 25-year short leases. Councils, desperate for housing stock to reduce waiting lists, bid at an auction and an out-of-area council won. These are state entities using state funds to bid on housing stock, which was owned by the state in 1996. The profits from this have filled the pockets of a private equity firm. That is a failure and a disgrace.
The result is far-reaching. There are very few houses left for armed forces families. In my most local garrison in Catterick, there are no houses at all for new postings to move into. Planned additional housing is yet to materialise and there are strong suspicions about whether the new super-garrison will be delivered on time. When it is delivered, it will be one of only three super-garrisons in the UK. Many regiments plan to move there. Can the Minister guarantee enough housing for service families in Yorkshire even after that is delivered?
Many service families have been pushed into the private rented sector. Indeed, the future accommodation model has set out the option for the introduction of a rental allowance to allow families to rent privately. A survey carried out by the Army Families Federation, a fantastic organisation that gives a voice to service families, looked closely at this matter. There was great concern over affordability, access to schools, the difficulty in obtaining housing, the lack of time to look and the security of tenure. One of the starkest observations was the loss of the support networks and the understanding that comes from living in a military community. Some 59% said that a loss of a military community was a negative or very negative aspect of renting privately. They also cited the difficulty of establishing themselves in an existing community with the transient nature of a service family’s life.
One person who had lived outside of the military community said:
“It was difficult to integrate into an already established community, there was a feeling of detachment from the unit when my spouse was deployed. They made many efforts for which I was grateful, but the geographical distance establishes an automatic sense of isolation.”
This loss of community is happening within existing barracks, too. In a parliamentary question last year, I asked how many civilians, not including reservists or civil servants—so these are civilians unattached to the military—are subletting service family accommodation. The number for 2017-18 had more than doubled from the previous year and tripled from the year before that. The figures included sublets only and did not include the former SFAs in Army garrisons that have been taken into the private sector. This practice raises all kinds of security issues, causes a strain on resources designed and built for military life and does nothing to foster the community that is so vital to service family life.
All these problems can be traced back to that single act of selling military housing to Nomura. This sale, like much of the privatisation projects of the past few decades, was sweetened with the promise of quality and an end to the dilapidation of the past. However, the standard of these houses is far from satisfactory for many of the service personnel. Fewer than half of regular personnel are happy with their accommodation, and the Army Families Federation says that accommodation is by far the top issue reported to them by personnel.
One member of a service family, who very understandably asked not to be named, said:
“The single soldier’s accommodation facilities are dire. There are 4 men sharing rooms as standard. These have not been updated in line with new regulations about single soldiers having single rooms with en suite facilities”— these do not even have en suite facilities—
“and it’s like a permanent sleepover that nobody wanted to go to.”
If the armed forces covenant is to be honoured, we must see to our end of the bargain. We must ensure that we have homes fit for heroes. Anyone who risks life and limb in service to this country deserves to live in the knowledge that they and their families will be taken care of and that they will have a home to come back to. Ending the scandal that has caused this crisis in military housing must be a top priority for us all.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate. I set up the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant when I was first elected in 2015, and found that the covenant had been published for five years, but had never been discussed in the House. It was a great pleasure to persuade the Backbench Business Committee to give colleagues and me time to do so. Two years on, it is even more exciting to see the Government bringing the matter forward themselves. I commend the Minister because I know that it is down to his efforts that this is now part of the national conversation. That is, of course, what the covenant is and should be—part of the national conversation. It is also a moral obligation that is practically delivered, and it is thought about by everybody who lives and works in our great country.
I will cover a few areas today. The report is extensive and shows the real depth of work that is beginning to emerge in this area, and that is fantastic to see. I would like to raise just a few issues that are brought to me most often by serving families and, indeed, veterans.
The first is education for the children of service personnel. It is fantastic that the Department has agreed to finance the education support fund for another two years. This is used by those who are doing research and helping us to understand, in particular by data collection, much more about the impacts on service family children. That is incredibly welcome, because it is very difficult for Ministers to make decisions that will genuinely be effective if they do not understand the realities of the situation.
I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill some 18 months ago asking the Department for Education to change the status of military children when they have to move to the same as that of looked-after children. The Minister said that it can sometimes be a four-month wait, but several families have come to me for whom it was six or eight weeks to deployment. In those cases, there is not only no time to get their lives in order and sort themselves out, but invariably the wife was doing most of the work because her husband was serving, although in one case the wife was a serving member of the armed forces. It is incredibly difficult, and the challenge with civilian schools is that people cannot apply for a school unless they have a house, and they cannot get a house until they know where they are going, and the Department can only move them so fast when they have a six-week window to go from one deployment to another.
There is progress, but I urge the Minister to push the Department for Education further to take this on. It involves a change of regulations, not primary legislation, and it would make a dramatic difference to a very small number of families who get very short-term deployments in the middle of the school year and whose children are just left out in the cold. Not this September but last, there was a statistic that showed that more than 70 children were still not in school in November because they had special needs and a place could not be found for them in the new location.
One of the other issues is the lack of understanding when families are not in community-based schools with a lot of military families but are isolated. Schools do not necessarily understand the additional stressors and tensions in families where the father, mother, or sometimes both, is on deployment. Is there not also work to do with schools to understand the additional tensions and problems of our young children when their families are away and to help them, particularly at times of stress such as during exams, to ensure that their education does not suffer?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is great to see in this year’s report that more guidance is going to schools with the service pupil premium funding to help teachers understand some of the particular needs of those children. I am lucky enough to have an RAF base in my constituency, and Longhoughton school, the local school next to the base at RAF Boulmer, has an extraordinary cohort of teachers. Military children make up 80% of the school, so teachers’ knowledge, understanding and ability to spot a child under stress because their parents are having to move—a lot of them deploy out to the Falklands for six months—are extraordinary. When there are schools that understand because they see a lot of these children, we need to draw out that knowledge and share it. The hon. Lady is right, these children can land anywhere in the country at any point.
Alex Sobel talked with great insight about accommodation and how DIO is making progress. This year has seen a fantastic investment of £68 million in housing, which is incredibly welcome, but for me the missing link is still the fact that DIO is working in a silo. The body that looks after the housing should have an understanding of the retention problems and the realities that a wife will run out of steam and her husband will leave service because the house is just too difficult to live in. That understanding should be linked directly to DIO’s thinking patterns so that it invests, because the loss of the incredibly expensive investment in personnel is a bad swap for a £10,000 kitchen or fixing a leaking window or one that does not lock. Those are the frustrations that drive retention problems, and they could be resolved if DIO had much more direct contact at a practical level that it was expected to follow up with investment. I encourage the Minister to keep pushing at that door. It will require a change in DIO’s terms of reference to achieve the change.
Colleagues have spoken at length about mental ill health, and the challenges we face. The trick to help this unravel and help the NHS to make progress is identifying the markers of veterans. Medical records are working much better.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to veterans, let me say that she has been an amazing champion for armed forces families during her time in this place. May I add to the list of challenges for armed forces families that she has so brilliantly explained? Spousal employment, and the role the military can play in helping spouses to find employment as their other halves are being posted, are key factors in the morale of armed forces families.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Businesses underestimate the value of the incredible workforce that can be provided by a military base close by, the effort that these extraordinary people, mostly women, will put in and their commitment to anything. An Army wife is a committed person who will work as hard as she can, even if she is going to be there for only two years. I have met many for whom it has been a frustration, and they take jobs at a lower level than their qualifications afford because they will only be there two years. Businesses fail to take the most advantage of the incredible resource that is on their doorstep. I know that the Department is looking to work on that in the coming year, and that it is one of its targets. I will be encouraging the Department in that, and I urge my hon. Friend to do the same.
We talk about ill health and veterans, and about the charities that support veterans’ needs. It is great to see the covenant fund being invested in and having a more open perspective than it has had in the past, but the challenge is for those small charities and social enterprises that do great work in the local community. I have two. Forward Assist, in the north-east, is wonderful, and helps with isolation and bringing veterans back into the workplace. Another wonderful charity is Forgotten Veterans UK, set up by an amazing veteran, Gary Weaving. It will formally open its new project at Fort Cumberland down in Portsmouth next week, and I am honoured to be a part of that. The charities help veterans with very simple tools, but they cannot access funding. They are sent the veterans who need that on the ground, day-to-day, gritty support, but they are not really getting any funding to help. We need to look at that more closely.
PTSD Resolution is a very small charity that has an incredible impact. It does not pay anyone anything, and any money it receives it uses for treatment. It is run by Colonel Tony Gauvain, my old commanding officer, so I declare an interest, but I ask the House to please support PTSD Resolution. It does great work.
There are many such charities that do specific, targeted work, and we need to try to chip away to give them the support they need to provide that.
In all these things, the question is carrot and stick. The covenant was set up to drive forward this moral obligation for all the organisations and for all of us to pick up. However, as I said to the Minister last week, I question whether the carrot is enough, and ask whether we need a stick. Do we need to create some sort of covenant ombudsman, so that if someone is having NHS issues and cannot find a solution there is always someone with an independent voice to go to? It is not only unfair to ask the MOD to pick up a lot of the stuff and try to sort it out. Is marking one’s own homework the right solution if we believe in our veterans and military families? They do not have unions. They serve our country selflessly and put their lives on the line, and they do not have an independent voice. They rely on us as MPs, and often that does not fit the problem. I call on the Minister to continue the conversation about how to create an independent ombudsman for those who find that the system does not support them as it should.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and to follow Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is an admirable champion for armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. It is a privilege to have shared in a small way in the work she has done on this issue.
We will have to constrain our contributions this afternoon for reasons outside your control, Madam Deputy Speaker, and outside the Minister’s and mine. I fully appreciate the opportunity to put forward a voice for Northern Ireland at a time when we give a disproportionately higher percentage of our population to the armed forces—higher than anywhere else in this United Kingdom—but are so disproportionately poorly served by the implementation of the armed forces covenant. That is why it is important for me to contribute to the debate.
I accept fully the sincere commitment the Minister has given and is giving to the implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. It is a genuinely felt belief of mine that the Minister sincerely wishes to resolve some of the outstanding and ongoing issues about full implementation in Northern Ireland.
This is such an important issue that we included it within the confidence and supply agreement. However, when we look through this armed forces covenant report, and consider through-life support for armed forces veterans, we see on page 98 reference to the support we give veterans in England; on page 101, reference to the support we give veterans in Scotland; and on page 102, reference to the support we give veterans in Wales. Where is the page on Northern Ireland? Where is the part of this document about the support we give veterans in Northern Ireland? It is not there.
I have raised on the Floor of this House before the Border Force—or border farce—issue that has affected veterans seeking to serve their country in that regard. Anywhere else in the United Kingdom, someone can satisfy the eligibility criteria through their military service; in Northern Ireland, Border Force scrapped that proposal. It did so on the basis of an erroneous understanding of advice given by the Equality Commission. The Equality Commission merely said, “You have to justify your actions if it disproportionately impacts one side of the community or another.” Border Force—an agency of our Government, responsible to a Whitehall Department —decided not to justify why someone’s service within our armed forces should satisfy eligibility criteria. In the thrust and the vein of the armed forces covenant, that is a disgrace. Now Border Force is facing legal challenge from a former member of the armed forces who happens to come from the Roman Catholic community but is being denied the chance to serve his country because of his religion. Border Force cited protections for him and his community, yet it is using those very protections to frustrate that gentleman’s ability to serve his country. That is not okay.
On two separate occasions, for two years in a row, I have had to challenge veterans Ministers in the Defence Committee and say, “It’s great that we have armed forces champions in local government, but, our local government in Northern Ireland has no role or responsibility in housing or in health, or any of the issues through which the champion process makes a big difference.” In October 2016, I brought correspondence to the Defence Committee that stated, up-front and full-square, that the armed forces covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland. That was wrong, but it was the policy direction being set by the Minister of Health at that time, Michelle O’Neill. It was a disgrace. That is why it is crucial that when we consider the implementation of the armed forces covenant, the Minister has to consider placing a statutory duty on Departments and our public services throughout this United Kingdom. This cannot rest at the will or the whim of any Minister in charge at any given time, because to allow it to be within their grip, poisoned by their political ideology at any given time, is a true disservice to service personnel who served us so well.
The Minister has mentioned the veterans support officer who has been appointed. I know that the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland is doing tremendous work to try to navigate its way behind the scenes through the labyrinthine problems that we have in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that the funding that has been made available to them comes from LIBOR, that there is no sustainability of funding, that they are only just getting going, and that they are trying to work without full political support—the full intervention and the full weight of Government behind them. Yet they continue admirably.
I hope that in the coming months the Minister will be able to take the opportunity to think about how he profiles resource properly for veterans’ support in Northern Ireland, including extending it further. How does he recognise that we as a country still owe a duty to the significant number of service personnel who we get from the Irish Republic? The armed forces covenant does not apply at all to those in the Republic of Ireland, and why should it? Yet those veterans who have served this country and have returned to their home nation have to pay for themselves to travel into the UK to avail themselves of these services. Their service was exactly the same; the sacrifice they were prepared to make was exactly the same. We are going to have to consider that in the months to come.
These progress reports, I accept entirely, show a continual development of the covenant commitment to our service personnel. It is a continually improving picture. But until we grasp the nettle of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—until national Government believe that we need to and should amend section 75 to include veterans as a specific classification of individuals who should be protected in equality law—we will never fully realise the commitment that we have made.
I was going to talk about war widows, but Dr Lewis has admirably delivered all the points that needed to be made on that subject, save to say that the principle of the argument has been won with regard to those who have not had their pensions reinstated as a consequence of marriage. The way they are treated is a stain on how we treat the honour and the valour of their former loved ones. I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to resolving and removing that stain in the weeks to come.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my friend from across the water, Gavin Robinson. I want to talk about what my constituency—the community that I represent—is doing to implement the armed forces covenant at a local level and to pay tribute to and do right by veterans locally by repaying the debt we owe them.
My local authority, East Renfrewshire Council, works in partnership with two other neighbouring authorities in Inverclyde and Renfrewshire to ensure that our armed forces personnel and veterans want to come to stay in the area because they know that if they come to live there, they will be with a local authority that has them at the heart of the services that they provide. It co-ordinates access to housing-the-homeless services, and provides social care, welfare benefits, literacy support, and referrals on to statutory models. Through our local community covenant, the council safeguards the healthcare of armed forces personnel by ensuring that they are known to our local healthcare professionals as well as to local NHS specialist services.
Those who have served in the armed forces also have access to our veterans gateway—a consortium of expert organisations specific to the AFC who all offer different support to those in need. North of the border, one particular important partner is Poppyscotland, which offers incredible support to the AFC through their many branches, including, in particular, the armed services advice project, which is provided by Citizens Advice nationally throughout Scotland. That programme is embodied by East Renfrewshire Citizens Advice Bureau in Barrhead, which offers advice on housing, benefits, debt, and much more. Importantly, Poppyscotland also offers respite breaks for families, and employability services that support the family as a whole. Other Members have touched on issues for families, and that key part of the programme is extremely important.
There are over half a million veterans in Scotland, of all ages, many of them embattled by homelessness, unemployment, loneliness and other complex issues. For all that there are these great services out there, many particularly vulnerable veterans do not engage with services unless they have somebody in whom they have confidence to go with them. As a result, many miss vital appointments, which, in turn, impacts negatively on many aspects of their life.
I really want to pay tribute to an organisation called Fares4Free, which was set up by David Gibson in 2016, and offers much-needed transport assistance to veterans. It provides free transport by asking taxi drivers to give up to four free fares a month to help veterans to access important services and combat loneliness. It has paired this project with a campaign to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles staffed by trained ex-service personnel. It also provides drivers trained in mental health first aid to transport, accompany and support veterans, building up friendships and sharing confidences.
When I became a Member of Parliament and went to the Coming Home Centre in Govan—which is not in East Renfrewshire but just across the boundary in Glasgow—I was really surprised by how many gaps there were. A public who honour and value their armed services, as they do, would be shocked to know the extent to which they still require volunteers to get second-hand furniture, and to dip into their own pockets to go to the supermarket, so that a veteran has a bed to sleep on and milk in the fridge.
The AFC is fantastic, but in and of itself it is not enough—what matters is whether it is being implemented on the ground. I very much welcome the great steps taken by this Government and the progress update today, but we still have quite a long way to go before we can really give ourselves a pat on the back.
My constituency sits between Carver barracks to the west and Colchester garrison to the east, and while it has a fair few veterans and military families within its geography, it does not have the critical mass to result in the organic wraparound support provided in a more condensed military environment. I am pleased to say, however, that, because of the armed forces covenant, Braintree District Council has fully implemented a series of changes that prioritise the military and military families in the allocation of social housing. It has worked with both Colchester Council and Tendring Council to fund, through the AFC, a project manager to support military families.
It is incredibly important, as we move from an era of very intense military operations, and as the tempo of military commitments thankfully reduces, that we do not allow the level of public awareness and support to see a corresponding reduction. Warrant Officer Class One Glenn Haughton, who was until recently the Army Sergeant Major, the most senior warrant officer in the British Army, summed it up brilliantly when he said that veterans needed not sympathy but empathy, and that they did not want, and should not have, pity, but they absolutely should have support and understanding.
I am sure we are all partially familiar with the Kipling poem, “Tommy Atkins”, and know that, in the abstract, we are terribly supportive of our service personnel and, by extension, their families. We have already heard mention of a number of service charities, including Care after Combat, which has, as one of its principals, my former honorary colonel, General Freddie Viggers. Service charities do fantastic work for those armed forces personnel who are perhaps a little harder to love—the ones who have fallen into criminality, or perhaps addiction and alcoholism, and who need our support just as much as anybody else.
I will finish my brief remarks with one final point. We must always remember that the families of our service personnel are not just chattels, not a problem to be mitigated and worked around, but an essential element and moral component of our fighting power. They are a positive, and deserve our respect, admiration and support, and I am pleased to say that through the armed forces covenant we are seeing that, but I would suggest that this should be a constant watching brief for the whole of Government.
I begin by echoing and reinforcing the earlier comments of the Chair of the Defence Select Committee when he congratulated my hon. Friend Mrs Moon on becoming president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. It is an excellent tribute to her, but it is also good for this country, and I am glad that we are all united in supporting her in that position.
This has been an important debate, not least because it comes 100 years after the end of the first world war. It is important to reflect that when those brave men and women came back from different parts of the world—not just Europe—they did not find in this country a land fit for heroes. There was a lack of support for so many men and women. Lessons were learned, but it took a long time. They were learned during the ’20s and ’30s and after the second world war, but only recently have we had the explicit support provided through the armed forces covenant. I am proud that much of the preparation was done under a previous Labour Government if implemented by the Conservatives.
It is important, too, that we recognise how important and significant is the report before us today. It is important because it contains the observations of the covenant reference group, whose involvement in the process is extremely important.
We have heard today from a number of hon. Members. The last to speak was James Cleverly. He reminded us how important it is that we have this covenant and debate. We heard from Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Select Committee, who spoke eloquently about the desperate plight and unfairness of the situation faced by many war widows. I hope very much that the Government address that situation. We heard from Gavin Robinson about the particular situation in Northern Ireland and from the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton). I echo their support for the covenant.
It is clear from this debate and report that the implementation of the laudable principles in the covenant is uneven and varies between different parts of the country. I hope for a degree of uniformity before too long so that service personnel and veterans might have the equal support through the country that they deserve. I would cite the situation in Wales. All the local authorities bar one are very involved in the provision of the services that the covenant calls for, and I hope that Powys will join the other local authorities to ensure comprehensive coverage in all of Wales.
My own area, Caerphilly, is a shining example. Armed forces awards are being given tonight in Wales, and I am sure that Caerphilly will loom large among the recipients, because excellent work is being done there on the education of veterans’ children and on employment opportunities. There is a particular focus, however, on homelessness, as is common throughout many parts of the country. Caerphilly has appointed a first-rate regional armed forces covenant officer, who covers not only Caerphilly but other parts of Gwent, and we have a first-rate community covenant champion in Councillor Andrew Whitcombe. That model has been replicated elsewhere, but Caerphilly is a good example for others to follow.
It is important, too, that we recognise that we are not just talking about veterans when we talk about the covenant, important though they are. We are talking about those serving currently, as is made explicit in the covenant. One of the big concerns I am aware of is that the armed forces are still not satisfied with the quality of accommodation on many parts of the armed forces estate. This point was made very clearly by my hon. Friend Alex Sobel. It is very important that we heed the comments from the Defence Select Committee. It has been extremely critical—quite rightly, in my view—of the agreement with Annington Homes, which was clearly delivering substandard accommodation for our personnel.
That is still a problem; it is not just a historical one. It is noticeable that in the annual report, the armed forces families federations are cited as still being critical of the standard of single living accommodation. It is important to recognise the concern over the last few months about the liquidation of Carillion. Those difficulties continue, and I hope that the MOD will learn the lessons from that kind of outsourcing.
This is an important report, and I hope that Members will take time to read it from cover to cover. Although much has been done, much more needs to be done. I am delighted that there is political consensus on both sides of the House that support for our veterans and armed forces should be vital in our approach to political engagement, whether we are on the right, left or centre. I hope that that bipartisan approach continues and is reinforced, and that a clear message goes out from the whole House of Commons that we are firmly behind veterans and the armed forces generally.
I would like the Minister, in the brief time available to him, to seek to allay concerns that many people have about the proposals we believe are in the pipeline to outsource veterans’ services. We believe that that would be a mistake. I would also like him to clarify what exactly the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust will mean for changes in financing. A number of Members have referred to Care after Combat and its belief that it will be excluded from future funding. If that were the case, it would be a huge tragedy. I ask the Minister to specifically address those points. I would like to finish by reiterating the point I made earlier: we stand firmly behind the veterans and armed forces of this country.
It is a pleasure to conclude this important debate on the support for the armed forces covenant. I notice that there are a few more Members in the Chamber than there were when I opened the debate. I am sorry that they did not have an opportunity to participate in it, but they are most welcome. In the short time available to me until I am upstaged, I will try to respond to Members’ questions.
The shadow Secretary of State, Nia Griffith, spoke about the future accommodation model. She is aware that it has been delayed. I am sorry to hear that. I will write to her, and indeed to all colleagues, with the answers that I cannot provide in the short time available. She also spoke about morale, and I pay tribute to the work that the families federations do in providing support and understanding of where things are with our armed forces.
I congratulate Mrs Moon on her election as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly; I have participated in the assembly myself. The Chair of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, touched on the important issue of war widows. He is aware of my personal view and that of the Secretary of State. He also touched on the fact that that is a Treasury matter, and we will continue to work hard to see whether the issue can be rectified.
Douglas Chapman touched on the importance of the devolved Administrations. They are critical in the complex map of support that we have in this country. It is important that we provide consistent support, regardless of where armed forces personnel are situated or where they are moved to up and down the country. I welcome the introduction of the Scottish veterans commissioner, as well as the role of the armed forces champions.
My hon. Friend Chris Davies mentioned the need to talk more and praised the Prime Minister for her role in promoting the removal of stigma around discussing mental health. It is not just in the MOD or in defence, but in society as a whole that we need to do more on that issue.
I was about to get offended. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West spoke about the importance of accommodation and the problems we have had with Annington Homes. I appreciate that. I recognise that 95% of our accommodation does meet the decent homes standard. However, there is more that we can do.
My good friend, my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who did so much in her role as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Defence Secretary, raised a number of important issues, not least to do with having a national conversation about the work we do in supporting our armed forces. She also made the interesting proposal of having an ombudsman. If I may, I would like to discuss that further with her.
Gavin Robinson spoke about some of the issues. I have promised to come back to Belfast to discuss these matters in more detail. My hon. Friend James Cleverly talked about the importance of working with councils. That is critical for the work that we do.
I am sorry, I will not give way. If I have time, I will give way shortly.
I am pleased to present the report on the armed forces covenant. The covenant is making a real difference, but we need to do more in scrutinising our support for the armed forces community. First, whether in helping a child into school, getting personnel on to the housing ladder or, indeed, getting better data when it comes to understanding the number of suicides that have taken place, there is room for improvement. That includes better joined-up work between organisations and stakeholders, not least with the private sector and the public sector. It is important that there are no gaps.
Secondly, it is important that we maintain momentum in pressing partners to play their part in progressing the work of the armed forces champions and, indeed, getting more businesses—we now have over 3,000—to sign up to the covenant. I would love to get to a point where, when waiting to board an aircraft, I heard the announcement, “In appreciation for their service, would all armed forces veterans please have the honour of boarding our aircraft first?”
Finally—this point was raised a number of times in the Chamber—we need to transform perceptions about what our military personnel actually offer, and to bury the myths that are falsely perpetuated about our armed forces personnel being broken by their service.
A mark of professionalism is not just how we equip our armed forces on the frontline, but how we look after them when they are back home—the housing, the education of children and the health requirements—and our duty of care once they depart. That is why we have an armed forces covenant. In considering that, let us consider not just the last generation who have served or the current generation who are serving, but the next generation whom we are inspiring to sign up to our armed forces.
From where I stand, the world is getting more dangerous and more complex. As Britain aspires to continue to play a role on the international stage, we must retain our full spectrum capability. This is not just about hardware; it is also about people. It is about honouring our covenant commitments and allowing us to retain skills, so that we can continue to be the most professional armed force in the world. In that spirit, I commend the report on the armed forces covenant to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Armed Forces Covenant.