Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 31 January 2017.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I congratulate Graeme Dey on securing the debate. As a member of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community, I very much welcome the opportunity to debate some of the issues that affect veterans. The report from the veterans commissioner makes a series of recommendations, some of which have been touched on; I will try not to repeat those comments.

However, at the heart of the report is the recommendation that George Adam mentioned, which is for a veterans employability strategic working group that would bring together all the key partners, such as Veterans Scotland, the Scottish Government, local government, Skills Development Scotland and, importantly, the MOD. The working group’s agenda would be about overseeing and co-ordinating activity to generate opportunities for employment and improve employability and skills. I particularly hope that the Government will take that recommendation on board.

There are numerous suggestions in the report, from improving literacy and numeracy to making transitions easier, and I commend them all to members. It is right to highlight the importance of transition. We should not fail veterans, who have served our country so well. When they are able to plan their exit from the forces, that planning should ensure that they have a career destination at the end of the process.

I will highlight one project that does not impact directly on veterans, although it has merit and has had positive results. It is the Women’s Enterprise Scotland business creation project, which is about inspiring and motivating armed forces spouses and partners to start their own business. With a small sum of £20,000 awarded to it from the armed forces covenant, the project is also supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the business gateway, the Army Families Federation and HIVE, the information network for all members of the service community. The results have been fantastic. I had the pleasure of meeting two of the dozens of women who have been on the course. They each took a hobby that they did not think had much merit and turned it into a business. Both are now trading successfully and contributing to the local economy, never mind the household income, and both businesses are growing rapidly. Let us see imaginative projects such as that for veterans and their families.

I want to ask about the process that will follow. The report was published in November or December last year. Although the Scottish Government clearly needs time to consider the detail of the recommendations, I had hoped that we would have seen early acceptance of the principles. I am ever hopeful that the minister will say something positive tonight about the timescale for so doing. In particular, I highlight the idea of reporting back to Parliament annually. I ask the minister to encourage the cabinet secretary to consider committing to an annual Government debate, rather than simply laying a report. That debate could look at the range of issues affecting veterans—including health, housing and employment—and take a holistic view of what is working well and what needs to improve. I suspect that there would be support from across the chamber for such an initiative. I believe that it is only by having a sustained focus on veterans issues that we will see the necessary improvements.

Like many of us, I tuned into “Good Morning Scotland” this morning, and one of the lead items on the news bulletin was that Scottish veterans are at greater risk of deprivation than veterans elsewhere in the UK. Combat Stress, the mental health charity for veterans, surveyed around 3,000 people and found that half of Scottish veterans live in the most deprived three areas of the country. We have long understood that a lack of employment and low income are the main causes of poverty. In recognising that, we need to accept that, if we are to change the statistics, we need to invest in raising skill levels and improving employability. Getting a job is the best way out of poverty, and we owe it to our ex-servicemen and women and their families to do all that we can to ensure that they have access to employment when they leave the services. That is not too much to ask, given their courage and selflessness in serving their country.

I thank Graeme Dey once again for bringing the debate to the chamber.