I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I must start by thanking those from across the veteran community, including many of my own constituents, supportive charities and organisations for their support and insights during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. I would also like to thank Members from across the House who have supported the Bill to this stage, many of whom have a service background. In particular, the recent work of the all-party parliamentary group for veterans highlighted the urgency of the reforms proposed today. At a time when politics can seem more polarised, it is heartening that there has been a real sense of unity in ensuring that we care for those who have given so much to protect us. I am grateful for the cross-party support the Bill has received. I am also grateful for the comments, support and encouragement of colleagues who are members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, again a very worthwhile cross-party initiative, who have brought thoughtful comments and encouragement from all parts of the House during the passage of the Bill.
The Government are determined to make the United Kingdom the best place in the world to be a veteran and I am proud that the Bill will help to realise that vision.
I am very pleased to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. He mentions the importance of this country as a place for veterans. Does the Bill extend to overseas veterans who served in the British armed forces?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is a very apposite question, because of course many of our veterans live overseas. However, the Bill deals with veterans and their family members who reside within the UK, so at this time it is limited to veterans who are within the UK. For veterans overseas who have concerns or questions about services and access to support, I would direct them to their local embassy or consulate, which will be able to help them.
The Bill will help to regularise the provision of support to veterans and their families. It gives Ministers the flexibility to adapt the support that has been made available to this community as circumstances change.
Former servicemen and women represent about one in 25 of our fellow citizens. In fact, my constituency sits within the county of Conwy in Wales, which has the highest proportion of veterans of any Welsh county. It has been a real privilege to meet and to listen to those veterans across Aberconwy. Last Saturday there was a roundtable in my office of a diverse range of veterans from all ranks and parts of our armed forces. It was fascinating and humbling to hear their accounts of life as a veteran and their transition into that life from their time in service.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have been inspired by the work of local charities and community groups, both those across the UK and in my own constituency. Alabaré’s Homes for Veterans is one that I have visited, where I talked with veterans about the challenges they have faced in access to housing and coming to terms with what we would consider normal civilian life. For someone coming out of the highly organised, particular culture of the armed forces, that can present a significant challenge.
I pronounce Alabaré differently—I had it out with them last week because it is a difficult word. It is an amazing organisation and has a number of houses in my constituency in Wiltshire, where there is a significant veteran population. Does my hon. Friend agree that the crucial thing is proper liaison with the local authority, which in Wiltshire I pay tribute to for its support for veterans. Demand is very significant, and there is only so much that the NGOs and the third sector can do. It is important that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, such charities and local authorities work together on homelessness.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely relevant contribution. Perhaps I could argue that my pronunciation is a Welsh one, but I will not go there. I defer to his pronunciation and apologise for mispronouncing it.
My hon. Friend’s point was excellent, however, because local authorities are very often on the frontline—if I may use that phrase—of providing support to veterans. The Government have introduced the armed forces covenant, which places a duty on local authorities to provide services to veterans, in particular focused on housing and education. He makes a good point that liaison between state bodies and voluntary organisations is crucial. I know that he does excellent work in this House on strengthening communities and bringing forward Burke’s “little platoons”—to borrow an expression—in support of parts of society. He and I share a view that it is not possible for the state to reach all parts of society. Veterans are a good example of that. We need the state instruments—better organised systems and state bodies such as the veterans advisory and pensions committees—but they must be complemented by local and community-led initiatives, to reach effectively all parts of society.
I was naming some of the associations and organisations in Aberconwy, and I must mention Military Minds football club. This is a team set up by relatives of veterans in recognition of the support that they saw their family members needed as veterans in the community, with a particular focus on mental health. I had an inspiring cup of coffee—that might sound like a strange thing to say—with those guys. They set out their own experience of what they have seen—fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins. There is a place for this. They have taken that vision forward and have regular practice sessions, fixtures, sponsors and so on. It is all with the intention of supporting those who need help transitioning into society, and they are very effective.
I must mention Llandudno’s Troop Cafe, which is a slightly more formalised initiative in the community. As it says on the tin, it is a cafe in which members of the armed forces will frequently meet and events will be held. One event is to do with repairing broken implements and appliances, which serves to help give people something to do and a place to meet where they can share and talk with one another about the challenges they face. As well as its importance of veterans, it is delivering real value to the community, too.
Since being elected as the MP for Aberconwy, it has been eye-opening for me to support the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I spot some other alumni from that scheme today here. The scheme has given me and many other MPs an invaluable insight into the lives of those who protect our country. Very often, the conversations that I and colleagues have with members of the armed forces during those sessions are about what happens outside of the armed forces—what happens with accommodation and what happens after leaving the service.
Veterans make a valuable contribution to communities across my constituency of Aberconwy, and indeed across the country at large. This is testament to the fact that the majority reintegrate successfully and go on to live fulfilled, productive lives within society. Indeed, it would be wrong to characterise the veterans community as being wholly in need of support for disabilities, mental health problems and distress. That is an incorrect caricature of that community—of the roughly 2.1 million veterans in the UK. The vast majority are living quiet, productive lives within society, making huge contributions without any fanfare or fuss, drawing on their skills and experience to be effective in their families and communities.
For some, however, the transition is more challenging. Such individuals may require additional, often highly tailored, support. The Government have been working hard to improve the support for such individuals, most recently taking the historic step of enshrining the armed forces covenant as a statutory duty at all levels of public service. Sadly, the roll-out of support has not been as balanced as it might have been. Poor co-ordination at times between bodies, combined with varying levels of knowledge about the duties of those public bodies under the covenant means that support can be overly bureaucratic and confusing, leaving some to fall through the gaps.
That was a feature of the conversation that I had just last week with local veterans, who talked about the frustration of trying to work through a local authority housing allocation scheme, of being caught up on a list, and of approaching the top of the list only to find that others with needs will be placed before them. Very often, it is single males of working age who, because of need, receive the lowest priority within local authority allocations and who find themselves frustrated time and again. They ask what more must they do, or can they do, to get access to housing, which is a key part of that independence transition back into society.
As my hon. Friend James Sunderland, who could not be here today, revealed on Second Reading, research by the all-party parliamentary group on veterans suggests that four in five veterans rate their experience of claiming compensation from Veterans UK as “poor” or “very poor”. That observation has been affirmed by stakeholder engagement by the Royal British Legion, which found that the roll-out of veteran support under the covenant has been slowed by
“limited co-ordination and unclear relationships” between responsible bodies.
The pressing issues of co-ordination and consistency in veteran support point to the need for accountability, feedback and support at local level. The veterans advisory and pensions committees appear to be the best placed bodies to fulfil these roles. The veterans support landscape is a complex one, but the VAPCs stand unique on this as statutory players across this landscape. The Bill, in enabling the VAPCs to play a more active role, presents a significant opportunity for a constructive contribution there. As distinct, identifiable and independent points of reference for veterans, these volunteer staff bodies already play a vital role in co-ordinating the views of veterans and their families, raising awareness and supporting implementation.
However, because VAPCs are limited at present in the services they can offer, they lack a clearly defined remit. As a result, their relationships with other stakeholders on and within that landscape can be frustrating. That can limit their ability to feed back the representative experiences of the veteran community and undermine their own ability to hold other organisations to account. That was a recurring point within the debates we have had and the conversations I had in the run-up to this Bill and its progression through this House.
Furthermore, these current frameworks also limit the veterans who can access their support. Members of such bodies have made clear their desire to do more and related their frustration at the legislative constraints upon what they can do. These men and women are volunteers and they do terrific work for the veterans in their community, and this frustration they speak of is palpable.
The Bill draws on the feedback of veterans, charities and public bodies. By tapping into the potential of the committees, it hopes to build a better landscape for veterans. First, the Bill will move the statutory powers of the advisory committees into the Armed Forces Act 2006. That move reflects the proximity of VAPCs to the implementation of the armed forces covenant.
Will my hon. Friend outline to the House in practical terms the measures that veterans in our respective communities will feel on the ground once this legislation becomes law? How will they interact with those advisory bodies?
I thank my hon. Friend for that good question. In many respects, this is very much a boiler room Bill; it is in the background and it deals with the piping—with the knocking in of pipes and putting them in the right direction. It does not deal with the front-of-house expression of what happens. By giving these freedoms that I am setting out, for example, this first freedom of moving powers into the Armed Forces Act, it enables the Minister to make quicker changes in response to feedback that comes through the system. At present, two reviews are being planned—several probably are, but two spring to mind—one being the quinquennial review and the other being the review of Veterans UK. When those reviews report, I am sure that recommendations will be made, and the Minister would usually then have to think how those could be implemented.
Until this Bill, VAPCs, because they were established within primary legislation, could not easily be repurposed or changed in terms of what they can do. This Bill allows the Minister, through a statutory instrument—a much simpler process, as my hon. Friend Peter Gibson will appreciate—to make those changes in response to recommendations. So I cannot say to a veteran today that their life will change in such and such a way, but I can say that the Minister will be able to respond faster to what is happening in the world around and will be able, through the VAPCs, then to make sure that a more relevant conversation is happening with veterans about the needs they have within their local community. As I have said, the Bill allows the Minister to amend the functions of the committee over time, and this will reflect the changing needs of veterans. It builds on this highlighted need for responsiveness to feedback, allowing Ministers to adapt to challenges and periodic review recommendations highlighted by the VAPCs on behalf of volunteers, veterans and families.
Secondly, the Bill widens the scope of the VAPCs’ role and responsibilities. Monitoring and advising on war pensions and the armed forces compensation scheme is an important and historic but, in essence, limited function. Expanding the range of the VAPCs would reflect the broader range of support now available to veterans and their families, enabling the committees to link these services on behalf of individuals and better identify gaps in provision.
The broader remit also means that VAPCs will be able to provide greater scrutiny at ground level. This reference to ground truth and being the voice of veterans locally was, again, a recurring phrase and petition made to me in the run-up to this Bill. It is indeed the key component in improving any public service. The different groups I have spoken to are hopeful that this reform has the potential to improve feedback from veterans on important issues, creating a clear incentive to action by decision makers, a point the Minister may wish to respond to in his concluding remarks.
Thirdly and finally, the Bill broadens the cohort of veterans and families able to access support from VAPCs. Currently, only those in receipt of war pensions and provision from the armed forces compensation schemes are guaranteed help from VAPCs. Let me digress by noting the contribution of our national service veterans to our country over their time. Obviously, the Bill deals with veterans in service, but representations have been made to me on this by mail during the passage of this Bill and I note and acknowledge that at this time.
The current position prevents the VAPCs from attending to the broad range of social support that veterans and their families often need. It also limits the ability of the committees to communicate with the wider ex-service community, which in turn prevents them from providing representative feedback to Government. By widening the committees’ remit to all veterans and their families, regardless of compensation entitlement, the Bill will both strengthen support services and give the veteran community a clear voice at the heart of Government.
These reforms provide a much-needed accountability mechanism to ensure that all levels of government uphold their duty to support veterans and their families. They improve co-ordination and knowledge sharing across service providers, they place a clear representative voice for veterans in central Government and they enhance the Government’s ability to respond efficiently to that voice.
One thing that has emerged from the discussions with the umbrella organisations and other charities that work with veterans is the concept of a “future veteran.” We have heard talk of a future soldier, but there is also space for a future veteran. What do we see or understand as a veteran’s role in society beyond their service? Shaping support to enable and support them in those roles is an exciting and current idea.
In all these regards, I am pleased to say the Bill has received support from stakeholders across the veteran community, as well as from vital veterans charities such as the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and the umbrella confederation of British service charities, Cobseo.
It remains only for me to encourage colleagues to support this Bill. In doing so, we send a clear message to service personnel and families—past, present and future. This country hears you, this country supports you and, when the time comes, this country will repay its debt to you.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a vice-chair of the all-parry parliamentary group on veterans, which has undertaken a lot of work on the further support that is needed, particularly through Veterans UK. I saw this Bill as an opportunity to see what more we can do, but that takes nothing away from the Bill itself. The Bill’s aims are excellent, and it will go a long way towards further increasing the support available to veterans.
I thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for meeting me and other members of the APPG, and for initiating a review of Veterans UK. Just over a year ago, I led a Backbench Business debate in which the House agreed that there should be a review. Unfortunately, we hit a few buffers along the way, and only since he took up his post have we seen the review move forward. I look forward to the review’s outcomes, and the passage of this Bill will enable him swiftly to implement any recommendations.
Just yesterday afternoon, the Justice and Veterans Minister, Keith Brown, led an excellent debate in the Scottish Parliament on employment support for veterans. The debate was also an opportunity to highlight the support being put in place by the Scottish Government, within the powers they have. We must all take every step we can to help veterans. On that note, I am proud of Midlothian Council in my constituency, as I understand it is the first housing organisation in Scotland to sign up as a partner of Veterans Housing Scotland. The first family has now been housed through that process.
We provide better support when we all work together. This Bill will go a long way in making a real difference to a lot of people. There is still more we can do, and I will continue to make that push. Veterans have been in touch with so many of us and, in my constituency, Garry McDermott first brought some of these issues to my attention. A wide range of members of our forces community are finding it challenging to address the situations in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. I think we are all on the same page in wanting to do everything we can.
I commend the work of the hon. Member for Aberconwy, and I look forward to the Bill being passed.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak for the third time today. I congratulate my hon. Friend Robin Millar on bringing forward the Bill. I know only too well what a privilege it is to be drawn in the private Member’s Bill ballot, and to guide a piece of legislation through Parliament; it is hugely rewarding. I congratulate him on using the opportunity to raise this important issue.
Last year, I too had the privilege of taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, just as my hon. Friend did. I place on record my thanks to James Gray for his sterling work leading the scheme. I must give a special mention to Amy Swash in his office, who does such an incredible job.
I emphasise that point. I too was on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and extend my thanks. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most eye-opening insights we got into our modern Army and how we look after veterans was at Tunnel beach in Cyprus, where we met Barry and the team who run the sailing there to help people with their mental health? It was a hugely valuable experience. I know that Barry will welcome the Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend Robin Millar.
I am grateful for the intervention. The time at Tunnel beach was very special, and it was great to meet the team there.
Many of us in the House will have spoken to veterans in our constituency about their life in the forces and, inevitably, the challenges that they face after service life. I know that our veterans will welcome the Bill. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for bringing forward such an important Bill; it will make a huge difference to the veteran community across the United Kingdom, which is more than 2 million-strong. They have given so much to our country, and give so much to our society, so it is entirely right that we support them to the best of our ability.
My constituency of Darlington has a large veteran community, in part due to its proximity to Catterick. Since being elected to this place, I have had the opportunity to engage extensively with them—in one-to-one meetings in my constituency; by meeting the great guys in the Darlington branch of the Royal British Legion; and by seeing the fantastic work at Plane Sailing for Heroes, where veterans suffering from distress are working together to build a Viking longboat. It would be remiss of me not to invite the Minister to visit Plane Sailing on his next visit to Darlington. There are many other groups in Darlington, and every one of them provides support to their members and contributes to our community. It is a privilege to serve them as their Member of Parliament.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy has outlined, there are 12 veterans advisory and pensions committees across the UK. Their statutory function is to engage locally with war pensioners and recipients of the armed forces compensation scheme, and to make recommendations and representations to Government. Satisfaction with the system is incredibly low. In the last Veterans UK customer satisfaction survey, only 36% of veterans using the war pension scheme noted any level of satisfaction with it, and 32% of veterans scored the scheme a one—the lowest possible rating. Only 13% of those surveyed gave the armed forces compensation scheme any sort of positive rating above five, with half of veterans rating their satisfaction at one—again, the lowest possible option. Overall, the dissatisfaction rate with the Veterans UK claims process is a shocking 80%. That needs to change, and I am confident that the Bill is a step in the right direction.
The point of the Bill is to right some of the wrongs of the system, and to make sure that the statutory functions of veterans advisory and pensions committees reflect and serve the needs of veterans as they are now, not as they were when the initial legislation was put in place. My hon. Friend’s Bill is excellent. I know that veterans up and down the country will warmly welcome it, and I am delighted to give it my support today.
Today is something of a veterans’ reunion, because I too served in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, along with my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), Luke Pollard and others—we were comrades in arms. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend James Gray and his team, and particularly the team from the Army, who co-ordinate that brilliant scheme.
The Bill will put some really important, practical measures on the statute book. I commend and echo all the points my hon. Friends have made about the basic necessity of transferring the pension scheme to MOD legislation and widening the scheme’s scope to reflect what is going on in wider society and the admirable expansion in the terms of reference that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy in saying that the experience of veterans is not isolated today, if it ever was. Legislation should not be isolated to their experience as former soldiers; they are integrated into our society. Our society and our Parliament have an absolute obligation to ensure that the support they receive is properly interconnected and properly integrated into the wider service system. That is why the armed forces covenant was such an important statement of commitment from this country about what we owe to our veterans who have served the country and, crucially, to their families too. Importantly, the Bill will ensure that veterans’ families are properly in scope.
I recognise and pay tribute to all the people who have contributed to the development of the armed forces covenant. I also pay tribute to all the veterans’ charities and institutions that for decades—in many cases for 100 years and more—have quietly, humbly and doggedly served the cause of our veterans and their families. I am very proud to support a Government who have put into statute those important principles.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, I am concerned about the satisfaction rating of Veterans UK in recent years. It is a source of real concern for us all. I am glad that with the appointment of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the other rearrangements in Whitehall, we seem to be properly gripping the challenge, but we cannot rest until there are high satisfaction ratings among our veterans with respect to the services they receive. We have done a lot, but there is a lot more to do.
The reference to Future Soldier is significant. Our country’s security depends on our armed forces, who in turn depend on their families and on the support given to them as human beings living in this country—members of local communities, with their children in our schools. They need to know that when they leave the Army, they will be properly supported in their pension arrangements and in all the other services they receive.
Although we would all individually wish for a larger armed forces, I pay tribute to Defence Ministers for what they have achieved in getting further funding from the Treasury for improvements in kit, welfare and capabilities. I look forward to seeing them succeed in their undoubted efforts to grow the size of the Army. I regret the diminution in manpower and headcount that is under way, but I am sure that as time goes on and as the economy and public finances allow, we will see the Army growing again.
I end by paying tribute to a group of units, formations and battalions. I wonder whether the Minister knows what the following have in common: the Signals, the Royal Military Police, the Rifles, the Armoured Infantry Brigade, the Household Cavalry, the Mercians, the Royal Logistics Corps, the Royal Tank Regiment, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the 1st Artillery, the Royal Welsh, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and, let us not forget, the Royal Artillery. They are, of course, all located in the genuine home of the British Army, despite what my hon. Friend Leo Docherty might claim: in Tidworth, Bulford and Larkhill and the super-garrison there. I pay tribute to all the men and women who serve our country and are based in my constituency, and to their families.
I am proud to speak in this debate, as someone who comes from a proud military family. I tried to blag the beep test myself: despite being deaf in one ear, I tried to pretend I could hear the beeps going off, but was caught out because I did not realise that they had not yet pressed “play” on the machine. However, my grandfather Terry was a Royal Marine who served in combat during Suez, and my other grandfather, William, served in the Royal Air Force in Egypt and the United Kingdom. I have a living relative—a great-great-uncle, I think—Allan Gullis, a D-day veteran, who was partly responsible for the building of the temporary Mulberry harbours as we were landing ashore. It was a remarkable experience to see him in Portsmouth not long ago when world leaders gathered to celebrate the historic moment when so many people so gallantly risked their lives not just to protect us here in the United Kingdom but to free Europe from tyranny, and I am very proud that that involved a member of my own family.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the Mulberry harbours. He may be interested to know one of the places where they were tested and developed is in my constituency. On the banks of the River Conwy is the Mulberry pub, which is on the site of their development. May I make a more serious point, however? Does this not reflect the diversity of the skills that members of our armed forces possess, and the value that that diversity brings to society after they have left?
I could not agree more. Let me say first that I would love to go to the Mulberry pub and have a drink with my hon. Friend. I am a teetotaller, so I will be quite dull—I may just have a lemonade and orange juice—but I shall be more than happy to sit there and join in with some joyous chat. As for that diversity of skills, I acknowledge it entirely.
We used to wind up my grandfather because every photo he had from his time in Egypt was of him enjoying himself lying on a sun lounger. I did once ask if he had ever actually done any service. I remember that when we visited a museum in Portsmouth to look at the D-day memorabilia we saw an old deckchair, and I, as a five-year-old lad, asked my grandfather, “Is that your deckchair from when you served in Egypt?” Let us just say that after the talking-to I received, that joke was never made again at my grandfather’s expense.
The diversity of skills needed to serve in our armed forces and to be able to deal with the challenges that they face from day to day is truly remarkable. It would be remiss of me, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am sure that you will be kind and show me a little bit of patience, as much as, hopefully, the Prime Minister will show me after my vote on Wednesday—not to rattle off the names of some of the fantastic organisations in my constituency, run by veterans in most cases. Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke will be home to many who served in the Staffordshire Regiment and many who were recruited from this small but mighty city. The Veteran Support Network, led by Lee West, contains the Arts and Minds Gallery, based in the old Harper Street in Middleport. I have purchased two paintings by serving veterans, to be hung in my home to celebrate the history of the Potteries, but also to celebrate the fact that the ceramic poppies that were on display not long ago outside the Tower of London were made in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent. One display at Middleport Pottery, flowing from the bottle kiln down to the ground, was truly beautiful and remarkable, and it was truly special to have some recreated artwork to commemorate that.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the creativity with which local voluntary organisations are helping veterans. Does he agree that some of the spirit that enabled them to serve so well comes across in that? For example, the Leyland veterans in South Ribble are on parade on Remembrance Day on their motorbikes, wearing their leather jackets. There is a little bit of a Lancashire nod and wink there. Everyone uniquely represents their own area as well as their own service, which is wonderful to see.
It is absolutely wonderful to see. My hon. Friend is a fine champion for veterans and our armed forces.
When it comes to parades, I—like other Members—am always astonished by the hundreds, if not thousands, who turn out in the town of Kidsgrove for the parade from the town hall down to the memorial gardens. Those gardens were taken over, without anyone knowing who owned the land, by those from the Kidsgrove and Districts Royal British Legion. It is safe to say that it is their land now—whether or not that is legal is another question—and they have certainly done their bit to ensure that the gardens are commemorative.
Local businesses invest in memorials to remember our glorious dead, who were willing to give up their tomorrow for our today. That is truly astonishing. I have been on the back of the bikes that have gone around—not that I am a motorcyclist—and was certainly gripping on tight to my veteran as he rode me around the great city of Stoke. Celebrations also take place in areas associated with mining. It is very easy to forget that many people served their country here at home. In Stoke-on-Trent, a proud mining community, an awful lot of people sacrificed their lives underground to ensure, especially in the first world war, that we were fuelling the war effort from home. The Chatterley Whitfield Friends placed a memorial to those who gave active service underground across the Stoke-on-Trent North and Staffordshire area, so that their lives are remembered—that is truly remarkable. There are also veterans’ breakfast clubs, and Walk Talk Action, which gets people physically out and about to talk about their challenges.
Before I rattle off through the entire constituency, I would like to mention one particular individual. Tomorrow is a special day because there will be a parade and the opening of a memorial garden—created by Councillor Candi Chetwynd using her ward budget—to commemorate 20 years since the sad passing of Corporal Stephen Allbutt. He was killed very tragically in Iraq back in 2003, aged 35 years old, in friendly fire circumstances while in a Challenger 2 tank.
I spent time this week with Stephen’s widow, Debi, and will be with her tomorrow, alongside Councillor Candi Chetwynd and the Stoke-on-Trent North and Staffordshire community, to commemorate his willingness to serve and to put forward his life—not just for us here at home, but to save the people of Iraq from an evil dictator so that they may have freedom and democracy. It is truly harrowing to see the pain that Debi and her two sons still go through today. One of her sons is registered blind, and he has shown such bravery to overcome his personal challenges as well as the mental health challenges that he and his brother have faced—one was 14 and one was eight when they lost their father. It was quite special that Debi allowed me to be part of that special day.
I thank my predecessor’s predecessor, Joan Walley—a Labour Member who sat in this House for nearly 30 years serving Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—who was a remarkable champion for Debi. She helped Debi in her fight—sadly, it was against the Ministry of Defence at the time—to get answers, demand better care for our servicemen and women out there, and demand better training. Had those things been available, Stephen’s death could have been avoided. I praise Debi for her continued campaign efforts. I have been raising her cause privately to ensure that we never again see troops put into a warzone without the right equipment, support and training. I know that the Minister takes that very seriously. The MOD team are largely, if not all, ex-servicemen and women. That is incredible to see, and it is great to have their experience and knowledge.
On the Bill, it is absolutely right that we use the veterans advisory and pensions committees, which clearly have not only the confidence and respect of veterans organisations, meaning that they are able to reference and pinpoint people in a much more co-ordinated manner, but the knowledge and know-how about what support is available. It is a shame that, in 2023, we are still having to amend legislation, but it is good that we are doing it to ensure that support gets to veterans in particular. I look forward to talking more about pensions when we get to my Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) (No. 2) Bill shortly.
This legislation will be critical not just for those who serve, but for their families, who also pay a price. As my hon. Friend Danny Kruger pointed out, they see their loved ones go off overseas, or go away for months or years at a time. That is a huge, tremendous challenge. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, and I thank the whole House for supporting the legislation, which I look forward to seeing go through to the other place and, I hope, pass into statute as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure as always to follow my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, who always gives a lively speech and informs the House of many things that emanate from the great city of Stoke. I rise to support my hon. Friend Robin Millar and his excellent Bill, which will have a big impact on our veterans.
One of the problems in this country is when our armed forces serve overseas and are in action, it is all over the media and there is great sympathy and support from the whole country, but all too often, long after that action has ceased, we forget what has happened to them. When they leave, they are not praised as much as they should be. I contrast that with what happens in, for example, the United States. I have had the opportunity to visit the United States and see some of the actions that take place where they praise and celebrate veterans, but we do not do enough in this country to celebrate the service of men and women across the globe on behalf of this country. In my own constituency, as other Members have also mentioned, we have the annual Remembrance Day parade that veterans come to. The highlight is those people on bikes at the end of the parade. Members of Parliament will always go to our Remembrance Day parades with pride for our wonderful servicemen and women, and rightly so. I take it as an absolute duty to appear at the parade each year and to support it.
We have 2,723 veterans in Harrow, and many of them have experienced what has happened to people after they leave the armed forces. My constituency is home to RAF Bentley Priory, which was the headquarters of fighter command during world war two. It was from that centre that we fought off the Nazis in the Battle of Britain. We celebrate that every year. Sadly, most of those veterans are no longer with us. However, we have a large amount of ex-service accommodation and, indeed, service accommodation in my constituency, and those individuals and their families have varying experiences of what has been provided to them.
One of my other duties in the House is being the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. I am sad to report to the House that, in London alone, between 3,000 and 4,000 veterans are homeless every night. That is a disgrace to this country because we should be supporting those veterans as much as we can. Indeed, in my private Member’s Bill—the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—there was a specific duty on the Ministry of Defence and local authorities to assist and house veterans who have served this country. In some local authorities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy pointed out, families will often receive help and assistance going from military accommodation into local authority accommodation where appropriate, but it is not the same experience for single men or even single women. They are often seen as low priority by local authorities, and that is something we must fix.
As has been mentioned, the lack of confidence that veterans have in the process is clear. That demonstrates that the law must be brought up to date and further action must be taken. The world has changed dramatically over the past 34 years, and it is about time that we update and modernise the way we treat our veterans. The Bill goes a long way to support that. In fact, one concern is that the process is so out of date and complicated that many veterans give up. They drop their claims and lose out on the compensation they deserve. That is also a disgrace to this country. Those frustrations often lead to mental, and possibly physical, health conditions. A spiral takes place that sadly ends in many of our veterans taking their own lives. That is something we cannot allow to continue.
It is also important that we remember the role of military service men and women’s family. A toll is often taken by them when their loved ones are away for extended periods, and they naturally fear for their safety. They deal with the mental and physical strain of what happens when their loved one is in theatre or in action. I am therefore pleased that the Bill updates the statutory functions to extend not only to veterans but to their families.
Finally, let me put on record my appreciation for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Every year, on the Sunday after Remembrance Day we have a parade, and people who have served, or the sons and daughters of those who served, march to the cenotaph, together with their medals. It is a hugely attended function. I have had the opportunity of being part of that parade ever since I was elected in 2010. I commend colleagues across the House to come along and participate, because that attendance will be appreciated. Unfortunately, not many MPs do attend, which is a shame. Often MPs have other functions on a Sunday—we all understand that—but it would be hugely appreciated by AJEX if more Members participated. I commend the action taken by AJEX, as well as by other charities such as the Royal British Legion and so forth, which do such wonderful work for servicemen and woman who are veterans. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate, and I commend the Bill and look forward to it making its way through the other place and being enacted.
I rise in support of the Bill. It was a privilege to serve as a member of the Committee. I commend my hon. Friend Robin Millar for the Bill, and for all his tireless work and efforts to ensure that our veterans and their families are supported. It is no surprise that the Bill has received wide support, including from the Government, which reflects the utmost respect that Members across the House have for our veterans, and our subsequent strong desire to ensure that the highest possible standards of support are provided to them.
As Winston Churchill once said:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
I welcome that the Bill reflects that belief, and the Government’s drive to make the UK the best place to live for the whole armed forces community—something I wholeheartedly support.
In Bexley, where I am proud to serve, there are 4,958 veterans, which is approximately 2.5% of the population. I welcome that for the first time that data has been made available through the 2021 census, which also highlighted the difficulties that veterans sometimes face. For example, in London, 12% of veterans self-reported their general health as “very bad” or “bad”. That is more than three times the level in the general London population, with only 4% self-reporting in those categories. The difficulties that veterans face are not only in the area of physical and mental health but also, as we have heard, with housing, employment and welfare, which is a direct consequence and reflection of the sacrifices they have made for our country. We therefore owe it to them to ensure they are appropriately supported in those areas, and to help them live secure and healthy lives with a purpose. I welcome that the Bill achieves that.
The veterans advisory and pensions committees have played an important role by providing vital advice and support at a local level for veterans, including the 4,958 veterans who live in Bexley. However, VAPCs are limited in the scope of the advice they can provide, and in which veterans can access them. The Bill therefore seeks to address the need for reform to create more robust and broader services for all veterans and their families, as well as to adapt to the new need for veterans to access advice on how the armed forces covenant affects them being put on a statutory footing. I thank all those businesses that have looked to increase their support for veteran communities across the UK. Through the Bill, the scope of the VAPCs’ advisory powers would go beyond compensation schemes to modernising the VAPCs to take account of the changing social and legal framework, which is so important to offering holistic and consistent support to our veterans.
Furthermore, it is clear that serving in the armed forces means that extra support may be needed not only for wounded, sick or injured veterans, particularly as they transition to civilian life, but for veterans and their families. I welcome the fact that this Bill recognises the need to extend the statutory scope of VAPCs’ functions to include all veterans and their families. The landscape in which VAPCs operate has changed considerably over the past 10 years, so I also welcome the fact that this Bill not only adapts to that landscape, but enables the Government to make changes to the VAPCs’ statutory functions more easily in the future. That will allow us to meet the needs of veterans more readily for years to come, something that is crucial in ensuring that veterans receive the highest possible standard of support, as they deserve.
In conclusion, our veterans have played a vital role in keeping this country safe and it is our duty to ensure that those who have served our country receive the best possible care. I welcome the fact that, at its heart, this Bill helps to deliver on that duty, as reflected in the support it has received from brilliant veterans’ charities, including the Royal British Legion, SSAFA—the Armed Forces Charity, Help for Heroes and, in my local community, East Wickham & Welling War Memorial Trust, which does wonderful work each year to support local causes and local veterans. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy again for his clear passion to ensure that all veterans receive the support they deserve after they have made such honourable sacrifices for our country and our safety.
I thank Robin Millar for introducing this Bill. It is a Bill he can be proud of; I suspect it may have been a Bill he was given by Ministers to introduce, but none the less he has done so very well.
I have enjoyed the speeches from Conservative Members, who have raised some important issues relating to veterans. Across this House, we thank all those people who have served in our armed forces. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I add my praise to the love-in towards James Gray and his team and all the SO1s from the Ministry of Defence who do such a good job supporting us in that endeavour.
This Bill is an important update to the piping, as the hon. Member for Aberconwy described it, for veterans advisory and pensions committees, which play a key role in supporting our veteran communities on a regional basis right across the United Kingdom. They are a vital method of engagement with war pensioners, armed forces compensation scheme recipients, the armed forces welfare services and the Veterans Welfare Service at a local level. I thank all those who volunteer on the committees—it is a job that until very recently has not received much attention in this place, but it is important that we thank them for the work they have been doing.
However, it also true that, as Mr French mentioned, veterans advisory and pensions committees now operate in a fundamentally different environment from what their remit, as previously laid out in statute, has been. For that reason, Labour welcomes this update to the legislation to ensure that the committees are able to play a more extensive role in raising awareness of other initiatives that affect veterans and, importantly, their families—because not only those people who serve in uniform, but their families form part of the greater armed forces family and should have support.
“local authorities, health bodies and other organisations must understand their obligations to veterans”,—[Official Report,
Vol. 728, c. 480.]
and those that extend to their families, under the armed forces covenant. This Bill makes reference to that. I know that Members on both sides of the House have tried their best to make the case that the armed forces covenant needs to be more clearly explained. Now, thanks to the census, we understand where veterans are—the answer is “everywhere”—and it is for every single local authority and public body to implement the armed forces covenant correctly, ensuring that the best practice already established by councils in Portsmouth, and Plymouth, which I am proud to represent, extends to every community.
In the Bill Committee, which I note some of the Conservative Members present served on, I raised a number of points. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs responded to them, but I want to press a couple with this Minister if I can. The work of the veterans advisory and pensions committees is very important, but they are not prominent on the Ministry of Defence website and the VAPC section on the MOD part of gov.uk could do with a wee bit of updating—in particular, ensuring that the annual report consolidating the work of all the VAPCs across the country can be more clearly understood, to enable parliamentary scrutiny.
Regarding the VAPCs, I acknowledge that the Government established non-statutory supplementary terms of reference for a period of 12 months in 2021, which provided the committees with a more comprehensive and distinct role in supporting all veterans and their families. That guidance now moves to the Ministry of Defence from the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. That is a welcome move and ensures that the work of VAPCs can be more properly aligned to other parts of veterans’ communities and public services that now interact with our veterans and their families.
I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the Secretary of State will use the powers in the Bill to appoint members of VAPCs. How do we ensure that membership of the committees reflects veterans’ communities? Two groups of veterans’ communities are often poorly served by veterans’ activities: national service veterans, who were mentioned by Robin Millar, and recent veterans. Making sure that someone is able to understand the services available to them and their pension arrangements, especially in the event of medical discharge at an earlier rate, is really important. In some cases, people who leave military service at an earlier age may not always regard themselves as veterans, so it is important that there is a representative body on the VAPCs that understands how to engage with all the appropriate groups.
Finally, many Members have discussed the superb work being done by veterans’ groups in their communities. I thank all those in Plymouth undertaking that work. On Wednesday, I visited the Southampton Veterans Drop-In Centre, with Councillor Darren Paffey from Southampton City Council. The centre does vital work, and I put on record my thanks to Colin and Tracey Gaylor for the work they are doing, providing first-class support for veterans’ communities in that city. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the rest of its stages.
I am delighted to be here to support this important Bill, but I apologise that it is me rather than the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, who would have preferred to have been in my place. He has been working on the Bill with my hon. Friend Robin Millar throughout the Bill’s progress, but unfortunately events elsewhere have detained him.
This is a great Bill that has been expertly steered through by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy. It has been a pleasure to take part in the debate and fantastic to hear the cross-party support for the Bill, exemplified by the contribution made by Owen Thompson.
My hon. Friend Peter Gibson offered a ministerial visit to Plane Sailing in Darlington. If I find myself in that neck of the woods on my search for ammunition for our Ukrainian friends, I will certainly swing by. Otherwise, I will suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs that he visits.
Invariably, in helping the Ukrainians with their maritime attack capability, something faster and stealthier than longboats has been needed, but I will bear the offer in mind nonetheless.
My hon. Friend Danny Kruger—more accurately, my hon. Friend for the British Army—did as he does. He supports the Army magnificently and did not miss an opportunity to list a number of fine regiments, none finer than The Rifles.
My right hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis— [Interruption.] It is only a matter of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North got the final laugh on his grandfather by making sure that his grandfather’s sunbathing habits in Egypt are now immortalised in Hansard. He went on to mention the Hearts & Minds charity, Operation R&R, Walk Talk Action and the Veterans Breakfast Club. There is a Veterans Breakfast Club in my own constituency and I know how important that is. He rightly mentioned the work of Councillor Candi Chetwynd in securing the memorial to Corporal Stephen Allbutt, who was killed in action in Iraq. That is a timely memorial to be unveiling.
My hon. Friend Bob Blackman rightly drew attention to the number of veterans who still struggle to find housing or who commit suicide. There is a good story to tell from a Government policy perspective, inasmuch as interventions are starting to bring results, but he knows as well as I do that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, works tirelessly on those issues, which are a great mission for him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East also mentioned the Association of Ex-Jewish Servicemen and Women, and it was great to hear that great organisation placed on the record. I hope that I and other colleagues are able to find the time to come to join the parade that he invited us to.
Finally, my hon. Friend Mr French established himself as a keen supporter of veterans in his community. He mentioned the national charities of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA and Help for Heroes, as well as mentioning the East Wickham and Welling War Memorial Trust in his constituency. It is great that its work has been put on the record today, too.
The shadow Minister for Armed Forces, Luke Pollard asked that we look at updating the veterans advisory and pensions committees website, the terms of reference and also how the Secretary of State intends to appoint people to ensure that there is true representation and that veterans can have confidence in that. I will make sure that all that is reflected back to both the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison and the Secretary of State. The shadow Minister’s recommendations are well made.
My right hon. Friend kindly raises the AJEX parade that I mentioned. I am pleased to report that the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. and learned Friend Alex Chalk last November became the first Minister to attend the parade. I put on record our thanks for that. I am sure that that will become a tradition every year.
Indeed. I am glad that that attendance was possible, and I am sure it will become a tradition.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy has brought this wonderful Bill through the House brilliantly. I know that it will pass seamlessly through the other place, but the Ministry of Defence will of course continue to work hard to make sure that that is the case.
While I know that my friends in the Whips Office are keen to get on to other business, I might just mention in this week that it is the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war. As an Iraq veteran, I want to say two things. First, I say to all Iraq veterans that their service in that theatre will never be forgotten. It is one of the more politically contentious interventions that this country has made, but that contention never reflects on our service. Secondly, for those of us who, like me, are deeply conflicted about why we were there when, on later iterations of Operation Telic, we were effectively fighting an insurgency that existed because we were there, I take huge heart from the job that I now do, where I can see how the Chilcot principles are applied every day to how we decide what to do in the world with our military. If nothing else, that is a great legacy of that war, because we now use our military, I think, in a more precise and considered way.
With the leave of the House, I will just say that one point that has emerged for me is the number of individuals who have been named. On that basis, I must thank Lord Lancaster for his foresight in seeing this as an amendment to the Armed Forces Act some time ago. I also thank Lieutenant Colonel John Lighten, the national chair of the VAPC, for his guidance in helping my understanding throughout this process. I must also mention Adrian Hughes of the Home Front Museum in Llandudno, who showed me the importance of this and how it affects every life in a community over the decades. On that, I must mention my own father, who modelled for me the best of what veterans bring to their families and in service to society. He also taught me how many carry quietly these hidden burdens on our behalf throughout their lives. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.