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.