New Clause 7 - Welfare of Operation Banner veterans

Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 31st March 2021.

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“No later than 12 months following the day on which this Act is passed, and every 12 months thereafter, the Secretary of State must publish a report which must include the number of Operation Banner veterans who—

(a) have contacted the Office of Veteran Affairs,

(b) are accessing mental health treatment,

(c) are in the street homeless population, and

(d) are within the prison population.”—

This new clause will ensure that the Government offers consideration to the overall welfare of those service personnel that served in Operation Banner.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 15—Duty to report—

The Secretary of State to place a duty on all public services to include a question on whether the respondent is a veteran, has previously served in the Armed Forces or is a reservist to all new service users.”

See explanatory statement for NC14.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

New clause 7 is designed to get a commitment on looking at Northern Ireland veterans. I was very disappointed that the Government voted down our proposal for the Committee to take evidence from Northern Ireland veterans. Even the compromise of asking for written evidence was voted down, which was a disappointing approach from the Government.

Operation Banner was the longest continuous operation for our armed forces in Northern Ireland, running from 1969 to 2007. During that time, 1,441 members of the armed forces lost their lives in the service of their country in Northern Ireland. It sadly began in 1971 with the death of a member of the Royal Artillery Regiment, Robert Curtis, who was 20 years old and is buried in the West Road Cemetery in Newcastle, and it ended with Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, 23, when he was shot by a sniper at Bessbrook in County Armagh in February 1997.

Those two men are the bookends of the individuals who lost their lives, but many of those individuals serving in Northern Ireland had joined the armed forces mainly from communities such as the one I grew up in, from areas that they had left because of unemployment. They proudly served their country and were asked to take part in an operation that was vital for the security of our country, which exposed them to risk not only in Northern Ireland, but on the UK mainland, as we saw with the tragedies of the bomb attacks and deaths of service personnel. They paid a huge price—not only those who died, but those who served—and to a large extent they are the forgotten veterans.

We rightly honour the veterans of overseas campaigns who have lost their lives or suffered injury, but Northern Ireland and Operation Banner were slightly different. Because the operation took place in the UK, there is a tendency to think that somehow it is politically embarrassing for those individuals to be recognised, and because it went on for so long and did not retain public interest once it had ended, they were not kept in the headlines. There needs to be more research and focus on those individuals and on giving them recognition.

My amendment calls for a report to be commissioned by the Secretary of State specifically into the effects of Operation Banner on those individuals. Many will now be somewhere in their late 70s and possibly early 80s. While I accept that many will have gone on, as many members of the armed forces do, to successful civilian careers, the veterans I have spoken to over the years, and the individuals I knew growing up who had served in Northern Ireland, have suffered. There is a lack of research on that, although I commend recent reports from the Forces in Mind Trust, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, which were very good and specifically looked at Northern Ireland veterans.

There are two sides to this: there are the Northern Ireland veterans who are now resident in the UK, but I know from a number of visits I have made to Northern Ireland that there is also an ongoing problem with mental health support for those who served and live still in Northern Ireland. Some of the issues in the summary of the report that came out in 2017 were quite interesting.

One such issue was that those veterans felt there was a lack of trust, and another was a desire—quite rightly, I think—for some kind of public recognition for their service. I accept that they were awarded medals but, in the context of the broader question, because of the political nature of the Northern Ireland conflict, that recognition has not been given them. Also, in sections of certain communities, there is a social stigma against certain individuals who served in Northern Ireland. We need to do research and have the data and evidence to support the individuals who served. They were ordinary men, mainly, although there were also women. They came from communities across the UK, many in northern towns, and they served their country.

Added to that, we have the ongoing uncertainty on prosecutions, with 12 individuals still being investigated for crimes that allegedly took place throughout their service in Northern Ireland, some dating back over 50 years. In many cases, they have been investigated on numerous occasions. Obviously, a case that has been highlighted recently is that of Dennis Hutchings, who is 79 years of age. What strikes me about all the cases is that the individuals who are facing the torment—and I mean torment—of a prosecution hanging over their heads are mainly from the lower ranks.

I accept that things were done in Northern Ireland throughout the campaign that we would look back on and not agree with; the Army, and the way in which the armed forces operate, has changed radically in those 50 years, but the idea that young servicemen who were serving their country should be the target now of prosecution when those who made the decisions higher up, including politicians and those in higher ranks in the armed forces, were not held to account in any way for those actions is not acceptable.

I know that the Prime Minister and the Minister have said that legislation will be introduced to deal with those prosecutions, but it is like tomorrow; it never comes. The Prime Minister promised it. It was promised in the last Conservative manifesto. It was also promised in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. Nothing came forward. The Minister then said that it would be in this Bill, but clearly it is not. It has now been parcelled off. I understand it is now said not to be a MOD matter, but a matter for the Northern Ireland Office.

I take a very clear view on this issue, and it is already there in law. Is it in the public interest to persecute and chase down individuals for incidents that happened, in some cases—such as Dennis’s—50 years ago, when they have been investigated on several occasions? That cannot be a good and right way of treating people who were doing their duty by their country in horrendously difficult circumstances and keeping us all safe. At the end of the day, that is what they were there to do.

Veterans now think that the promises that have been made by the Government are pretty hollow, and unless legislation is introduced very quickly some individuals will face the courts. The terrible thing is the uncertainty hanging over those individuals—that at any time they could get a knock at the door and be asked to account for actions that took place in some cases, such as Dennis Hutchings’s, 50 years ago. That cannot be right.

As part of the efforts to highlight the plight of veterans, I welcome the Forces in Mind Trust research that has been done already, but we need the MOD, if it is really committed to these individuals, to do a wider piece of work looking at the effects of service in Northern Ireland, and to not forget those individuals, who were doing their duty by their country. I accept that a lot of things in this Armed Forces Bill might be problematic, but it is the only time we have as parliamentarians every five years to address issues that affect not only the veterans community, but members of our armed forces. I think if we were to do this, it would send a clear message that we are not forgetting these individuals and are trying not only to do the research, but to put in place policies that actually help them.

I plead with the Government to stop promising things that they are not going to deliver. If they are not going to deliver on the prosecutions, they should just say so. I think it is pretty dishonest to have a situation whereby these individuals are being promised something, including by the Prime Minister, that is not yet being achieved.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:00 am, 31st March 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham. He is not only a fellow north-east MP, but a highly regarded Member of this House and an expert on these issues, having served not only as an armed forces Minister, but on every one of these Bills since he was elected in 2001. I am therefore very proud to serve on this Committee alongside him.

I rise to speak to new clause 15, which would mean the Secretary of State had to place a duty on all public services to ask new service users a question about whether the respondent is a veteran, has previously served in the armed forces or is a reservist. I know that some services do this already, but this new clause would ensure that all public services ask the question and record the answer. I will come on to reporting when we discuss new clause 14.

Since taking on the role of shadow Minister for Veterans last year, I have heard that veterans and reservists are, more often than not, not asked about their service history and may not feel that it is relevant to the service they are accessing. They could therefore access a public service without anyone ever knowing of their service history. While this may be fine on some occasions, on others it could be a huge barrier to a veteran or reservist receiving the services they really need. That is why the Opposition tabled new clause 15.

In written evidence, the Local Government Association recognised the challenge of identifying veterans in their communities, and went on to say:

“More information about the number of veterans in our communities would help councils better plan their local services to make sure we have the right services in place.”

This new clause would therefore ensure that the majority of veterans and reservists are captured by public services when they access one for the first time. This will, I hope, improve the experiences of veterans and reservists, and allow public services to tailor their offering to the veteran and reservist population in their local area.

I know that some people may not identify themselves as a veteran, perhaps thinking that that term refers to someone older or from one of the world wars or someone having seen active service, which is why the new clause includes asking if the person has previously served in the armed forces. I hope that the Minister will consider this new clause, which will help improve the experience of veterans and reservists when accessing public services for the first time and assist public services in tailoring their offer to the local population. As I mentioned, I will raise reporting when we come to new clause 14.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I will address new clauses 7 and 15 together. I enjoyed the contributions.

There are some serious points here about the recognition of veterans—particularly our Northern Ireland veterans—which I have worked very hard on over the last couple of years. There is no tiered system of veterans. We are as proud of our Northern Ireland veterans as we are of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Banner was a deeply challenging environment. When I came to this House, I came here with a mandate to improve veterans’ care and the experiences of those who serve. There is perhaps no greater symptom of the betrayal of our veterans by Governments over the past 40 years than prosecuting or going after those who served in Northern Ireland when no new evidence exists and it is simply a question of the politics having changed. There is no other country in the world that endures these issues among its veteran population. The more people who speak on this matter and who become aware of it, the more that the individuals going through these processes will feel support.

The Prime Minister has made commitments to end this disgrace. I have made commitments to end this disgrace. Those commitments stand. It is an incredibly difficult environment and space in which to operate. At no stage have I just cast this matter off to the Northern Ireland Office, as has been alleged by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham. I work on this every day in the Department. Unlike my predecessors, I will achieve a result for those people who served in Northern Ireland. We will slowly make progress towards that.

Let me turn to the matter of welfare for those who supported on Op Banner. The creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs in 2019 is a marker of this Government’s commitment to her veterans. That never existed before; in previous Governments, under previous Ministers, there was never an Office for Veterans’ Affairs that took responsibility for these issues. We continue to demonstrate our commitment to supporting veterans and making the United Kingdom the best place in the world to be a veteran.

In the strategy for our veterans, the Government committed to improve the collection and analysis of data on veterans’ needs and experiences to inform future policy. I accept that we have poor data on veterans. If we had changed that—perhaps 10 years ago—we would be in a far better position now to calibrate programmes and understand the nuanced challenges in the transition from service life into the community. But we did not do that 10 years ago. We are doing it now. The first money that came into the Office for Veterans’ Affairs went into data and studies to try to understand the scale of the problem, so that we can implement evidence-based policies that genuinely affect and improve the lives of our veterans.

We are going to publish an annual veterans report, which will set out the progress made each year on delivering these objectives so that we can be held to account. As part of this data strategy that will improve collection and analysis of information across a wide range of topics—including veterans’ health and wellbeing; mental health; the frequency of the tragedy that is suicide; employment; housing; and relationships—we are working with stakeholders, other Departments and the devolved Administrations to understand what data already exists, where there are gaps in knowledge and how the gaps could be mitigated, including, where relevant, by adding new veteran markers to datasets. That is happening.

The 2021 census in England and Wales also represented a key opportunity. Using the expertise of the Office for National Statistics, we will be able to use anonymised data provided by the census to better understand the veteran population in England and Wales as a whole, and the huge range of topics affecting their lives, including their health and wellbeing.

New clause 15 seeks to

“place a duty on all public services to include a question on whether the respondent is a veteran, has previously served in the Armed Forces or is a reservist to all new service users.”

This would place an undue and unnecessary burden on public bodies. In keeping with the initial action plan of the January 2020 UK Government’s strategy for our veterans and the New Decade, New Approach agreement, my Department is currently conducting a review of welfare services provided to all veterans living in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment (Home Service) Aftercare Service was established in 2007 to provide welfare support for Op Banner veterans and their families from within an established service delivery network. My Department recognises that the delivery of veterans’ welfare support in Northern Ireland has grown in a specific way. However, I can provide assurance that a review of the aftercare service has commenced and will establish the potential of the aftercare service to support better our veterans UK-wide in the welfare structure. For that reason, it is imperative that, before further commitments are made, the review is allowed to conclude and bring forward its recommendations on long-term service delivery for veterans in Northern Ireland.

To support our veterans living in Northern Ireland further, we have, for the first time, appointed a Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner to act as an independent voice and point of contact to support and enhance outcomes for all veterans. I hope that, following those assurances, the right hon. Member for North Durham will agree not to press the new clause.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I accept that the Minister does not see veterans in tiers, but he should read the Forces in Mind Trust’s research on the way in which Northern Ireland veterans are perceived by the public. I do not accept that somehow because people served in Northern Ireland they are less of a veteran than those who served in any other sphere. I agree with the Minister that they should be treated similarly, but they are a unique group of individuals who need more attention.

The Minister talks about the aftercare service in Northern Ireland. I have visited that service and accept that it is good, but most Northern Ireland veterans do not live in Northern Ireland. I certainly commend the aftercare service’s work with not only veterans, but their families on the ongoing psychological problems that many family members experience. However, in terms of progress and getting the research, although the Minister says that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs was a first, I am sorry, but it was not. The last Labour Government started the Veterans Agency and had a veterans Minister. I could go on at length about what was put in place for veterans. It is all right for him to champion the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs, but he is cutting its budget at present, which cannot be right.

This area does need more research. Those facing prosecutions do not receive the recognition they deserve. I think that, in the way in which they are being dealt with, they are going through torture. In addition, other Northern Ireland veterans who are not currently being pursued for prosecutions fear that they may well be in future. That must be an awful feeling for those individuals who, if they committed a crime, it was serving bravely their Queen and country and being asked to do a very difficult job on behalf of us all. That is totally unacceptable.

Given the concentration on these veterans, commissioning the report would give a clear indication that we are taking them seriously. I understand what the Minister says about his commitment to the issue of Northern Ireland prosecutions, but frankly those are words that we have heard from both him and the Prime Minister. What the veterans need now is firm action. Without that, they will continue to feel let down. I would therefore like to press the new clause to a vote to ensure that the MOD does the research and gives the recognition and support to those brave servicemen and women who served on behalf of our country in Operation Banner.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I recognise what happened last time on the Armed Forces Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham attempts to leverage this in and follows it up with a press release to make out that he is standing up for Northern Ireland veterans. I want to place on the record that, yes, I am the first veterans Minister and this is the first Prime Minister to commit to end this intolerable process for our veterans. There was a time when I stood alone on this issue and although I welcome his support now, people are not as forgetful or as dim as he would like to think. He was the armed forces Minister. He was in Government for a considerable period of time when absolutely nothing was done on this issue.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

That is not true and the Minister knows it.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 10:15 am, 31st March 2021

This issue has been put on the political spectrum by myself and by this Prime Minister. We will bring forward legislation to protect these people. I will not accept lessons from people for whom I served—right? I was a veteran when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department and I know exactly what it was like, so—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister should be proud of what the last Labour Government did; we did not cut armed forces numbers.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

It is a total joke, because I would not be here if veteran support was as good as the right hon. Gentleman likes to think. So he can push the new clause to a vote, he can do his press release, but ultimately he will never change anything unless he actually contributes—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Well, I think that if the Minister looked at my record and the record of the last Labour Government in office, we did—[Interruption.]

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Order. Can I ask whether it is Kevan Jones’s intention to proceed with pressing the new clause to a vote?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Can I just respond to that, Chair? No, I do not do press releases on this. And if the Minister actually cares to look and do some research instead of doing his lazy thing of just reading out civil service briefs, he might know that I have been committed to this issue for a long time. And in terms of the last Labour Government

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

If the Minister wants a lesson in the long list of things that both I and my predecessors did in the last Labour Government for veterans, I shall send it to him.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 4 Armed Forces Bill — New Clause 7 - Welfare of Operation Banner veterans

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

On a point of order, Mr Sunderland. I seek your guidance on what I should do as the Minister when I am sat here and facts are presented to the Committee that are fundamentally untrue. The officials from the Department have just come back to me on the continuity of education allowance, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised. The allegation is that it is predominantly used by officers, but the figures do not show that. I have informed her that that is the case, but she still does not wish to correct the record. What do you suggest that I do when dealing with misinformation on this scale?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Know your subject, rather than just read the brief out.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

There seems to be some distortion on the line, Mr Sunderland. I can’t quite hear you.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Thank you for the point of order. My response is quite clear on this. First, Minister, you have the right to respond on all the amendments and new clauses that we are discussing. The second part of my advice is that if you are not happy with being interjected on, or if a statement that is incorrect is made after you have spoken, you have the right to make a point of order.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

Further to that point of order, Mr Sunderland. Is there any way to reduce the heckling from the right hon. Member for Darlington North so that I can get through my speech without this persistent barrack-room heckling?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Thank you once again, Minister. I urge all Members to stay on mute unless they are formally requested to speak or wish to intervene.