I thank the many MSPs who have signed the motion that allows us the opportunity to debate this subject. More important, I thank and congratulate the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, for the report that he has produced.
It is a thought-provoking, constructive and balanced report which, as he says in the foreword, is aimed
“at helping more members of the veterans community in Scotland to secure meaningful and sustained jobs” and at providing
“direction for improving employment and learning opportunities for the veterans community in Scotland”.
It is heartening to see the commissioner acknowledging that here in Scotland we are on the path to achieving a situation in which the last remaining disadvantages and barriers are removed, and opportunities in employment, skills development and academia are maximised for veterans.
I also pay tribute to the role that Keith Brown played, as Minister for Transport and Veterans, not only in championing the cause of veterans but in ensuring that we have made progress on so many relevant fronts. Support for our veterans is an issue that undoubtedly attracts cross-party consensus in Parliament, but turning that into something tangible requires leadership. Keith Brown provided that.
I declare an interest in that I am the grandson of a major in the Gordon Highlanders, the nephew of a Royal Army Pay Corps staff sergeant and the cousin of a captain in the Royal Engineers, so I have strong family links to the military. However, although that perhaps provides an insight into the basis of my interest in veterans, that interest was very much fired by a comment that was made at an event that was held here during the previous session of Parliament to explore how we might best support our veterans. During the event, it was suggested that we needed to get away from the service veterans being viewed, from an employment perspective, as “sad, mad or bad.” That remark stuck with me because I cannot imagine how it could not be seen as offensive and—to be frank—unacceptable for such a sweeping generalization to exist for any other group in our society. However, it did exist and perhaps, albeit to a lesser extent, still does. That challenges all of us who have the opportunity to act in this area.
A few months ago, I welcomed into my parliamentary office someone who had served 12 years in the Army prior to undertaking a degree in politics. I did that not as a gesture or a nod towards the subject that we are debating tonight, but because the person was the best candidate for the job. I know that I run the risk of his looking for a pay rise on the back of these comments, but I have to say that I have been hugely impressed. I have added to my staff someone who is hard working, confident, dedicated, proactive and not afraid to offer suggestions on smarter ways of working. He sees a problem: he finds a way of overcoming it. Having condemned making sweeping generalisations a moment or two ago, I should avoid making one of my own; however, on the basis of personal experience—never mind my more general views on the issue—I am happy to encourage any employer to do what I have done and to take on a veteran and to do so not as a gesture, but because of the attitude and skills that they will bring to their role.
“The Veterans Community: Employability, Skills & Learning” is the third report to be produced by the veterans commissioner. The first, which was produced a little less than two years ago, focused on the need to reverse the broad and destructive narrative that viewed veterans through the prism of need and obligation rather than recognising them for their strengths and attributes. The second report focused on housing.
The current report looks at employability and how we can best remove barriers to civilian employment and promote the skills, experiences and attributes of the veterans community. The report acknowledges that we are making big progress in the matter, if we use a 2014 Poppyscotland report as a guide. However, the fact is that former service personnel are 7 per cent less likely than their counterparts in the general population to be in work.
The commissioner identifies that outwith a growing number of major employers that have demonstrated willingness to recruit service leavers and veterans, there remains reluctance in some quarters—the public sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular—to hire from the ex-services community. The report, in essence, calls for a variety of new approaches in order to prioritise access to work for veterans. The timing of that is perhaps unfortunate, in that it comes as we are also looking to support other key groups—for example, carers, through the carer positive initiative. Nevertheless, the report makes a number of recommendations that are worthy of exploration by the Scottish Government, and I understand that a response is due shortly.
I will focus on just a few matters—given the time constraints for the debate, and recognising that colleagues will wish to speak about matters that I have not touched on. The first concerns the establishment of a high-level group to be tasked with taking forward the employability agenda that is outlined in the report and the Scottish Government’s strategy document “Renewing our Commitments”. It is suggested that the veterans employability strategic working group should include the Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland, local government representation, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Veterans Scotland. I hope that the Government will support that proposal.
However, it strikes me that the proposal perhaps misses a trick. If one looks at how the carer positive initiative is being deployed, it will be seen that major employers such as Scottish Gas and Scottish Water are front and centre, and are proactively spreading the message, from an employer’s point of view, of the benefits of employing carers and how such arrangements can be made to work in practice. Any group that is set up for veterans should perhaps have employer participation and the involvement of the Federation of Small Businesses. There is also a call for the Scottish veterans fund, in allocating funding, to prioritise supporting proposals that promote employability and increased opportunities among the veterans community, starting in the fast-approaching 2017-18 financial year.
In keeping with the mantra that veterans and, indeed, their wider families should, rather than simply being catered for, be seen as an asset, it is further suggested that we should be looking to that group in order to help to fill the skills gap. The idea is that we should look strategically at where there are specific shortfalls in skills supply—around education or health, for example—and offer veterans assistance to fill that gap in the same way as the Government has set about retraining and re-employing skilled workers from the oil and gas sector.
The report also considers how we can improve access to further and higher education, and better recognise qualifications and skills that have been gained during service. However, I will leave it to colleagues to explore those areas in detail.
In conclusion, I say that I very much appreciate having had the opportunity to bring this important subject to the chamber, to highlight the great work that has been done in Scotland up to now, and to explore how we can build on it to ensure that we reach the stage at which we are, as a country, fully utilising and appreciating veterans and service leavers for the valuable contribution that they can make to Scotland’s communities and economy.
These past few years have been unsettling for Scotland’s services community, with base and deployment changes; it seems likely that that will continue into the future. Tonight provides an opportunity for Parliament and the Scottish Government to send a message and to offer our servicepeople one certainty: that we value their contribution in the services and will seek to demonstrate that in all sorts of tangible ways when they look to return to civilian life.