As a nation, we are very proud of our military history. It is particularly timely to reflect on that history now, as the period of remembrance has just drawn to a close.
Many members and
Scottish ministers have been proud to play our part in the commemorations, honouring the memory of those who have fallen. However, it is equally important to recognise the contribution of those who are still serving, and those who have left or are leaving the armed forces and settling in Scotland.
The Scottish Government remains fully committed to supporting all members of our armed forces community, whether serving or retired. We do so in the context of a changing military landscape in Scotland. Just over a year ago, the Ministry of Defence announced a series of devastating closures to military bases across Scotland, cutting the defence estate by almost 20 per cent. The MoD has still not confirmed the full detail of those changes, or what the impact will be on local communities. That is wholly unacceptable, particularly in light of continued speculation about the latest UK Government capability review, which is due to report later this year.
I will continue to press the UK Government to reverse the ill-thought-through basing changes. I have one example of why those changes are ill thought through—one will suffice. Glencorse barracks in Penicuik had £60 million spent on it as recently as a few years ago, and it is now scheduled for closure. We will also ask the UK Government to reveal the full impact of its plans.
Where it falls to our devolved responsibilities, the Scottish Government continues to work to ensure that no disadvantage is experienced as a result of military service. In 2016, we published “Renewing Our Commitments”, which set out how we were supporting veterans in Scotland. Since then, we have continued to work collaboratively with our partners in the public, private and third sectors to deliver support where it is needed the most, and I have committed to update the Parliament annually on progress.
The Scottish Government has therefore today published “Scottish Government Support for Veterans and the Armed Forces Community in Scotland”, which outlines the work in train across the Scottish Government, focusing on our priorities and our response to the work of the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser.
I take this opportunity to commend Eric Fraser for his reports. Scotland continues to lead the way with the only veterans commissioner in the UK and, over the past three years, the commissioner’s work has continued to help drive our policy development. Where they are for us to take forward, the Scottish Government has responded positively to all recommendations across the commissioner’s reports on transition, housing, and employability, skills and learning.
On housing and transition, the commissioner highlighted the issues that are experienced by some veterans in accessing information. In response, the Scottish Government has launched a veterans portal to bring together information on housing, health, jobs, education and veterans support services as well as links to other key websites. The dedicated housing section clearly sets out options and advice. We have also written to ask all social landlords to share their practice on supporting service leavers and veterans with us. We will use that information to help promote good practice across the social housing sector, and that will help to inform our revision of the guidance on social housing allocations.
I have said in previous debates that too many of our armed forces personnel are unaware that, during their service, they can accumulate points towards council housing, for example.
The revised guidance for landlords and our housing guide for people leaving the armed forces and ex-services personnel will be re-launched in 2018. We continue to provide housing support through funding to organisations such as the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association, and by supporting priority access to schemes that encourage home ownership in members of the armed forces and veterans.
Employability and skills remain a key focus for us; we continue to work with our partners to support veterans into employment. Skills Development Scotland, Jobcentre Plus and the career transition partnership work hard to ensure that those leaving the armed forces know about the training and work placement opportunities that can help them to start the next chapter of their career.
For example, Skills Development Scotland’s my world of work website continues to be an excellent resource for all veterans and their families seeking information about future opportunities. Programmes such as community job Scotland give veterans the chance to experience civilian jobs and we have worked with employers and partners to publish a best practice toolkit, “Capitalising on military talent”, to help employers to understand more about the skills that veterans have to offer. We have also expanded the Scottish veterans fund, in partnership with Standard Life Aberdeen, to include a specific strand on employment. That fund has given more than £1m since 2008 to support projects and organisations in Scotland.
A core recommendation from the veterans commissioner was the need for increased strategic direction, and I am pleased that a strategic group on veterans’ employability has been established, chaired by Mark Bibbey of Poppyscotland. That group has influenced real change in how our public sector agencies work together to support veterans in Scotland. It is also taking opportunities to talk to employers about how they can provide and promote further job opportunities for veterans.
All of that is good and positive, but we know that more can be done. We will use apprenticeship week to promote opportunities to veterans and those considering leaving the armed forces, not least through graduate level apprenticeships, which are fully funded and open to people of all ages. In partnership with Skills Development Scotland we will develop a welcome page for veterans on the previously mentioned my world of work website. That will link into other key web resources such as the veterans’ gateway and will simplify how people can access careers and employability information and advice.
I believe that, in addition to those measures, we should explore what other opportunities there are to support veterans and their families to access quality jobs; talking about families as well is extremely important. To that end, I have asked the strategic group on veterans’ employability to work with the Ministry of Defence, the career transition partnership, Skills Development Scotland and other delivery bodies in Scotland to make recommendations on what further support is needed to help veterans move into good quality sustainable jobs. That is very important to veterans and I look forward to engaging with the group over the next few months.
Alongside that focused support, since April this year we have committed £5 million to ensure that veterans in receipt of social care in Scotland receive the full value of their war pensions. That is a substantial investment in the welfare of veterans and provides them with equity. Going back to the point that I made previously, which we had agreed with veterans organisations, our aim should be to make sure that there is no disadvantage to people from having served in the military. The idea that their war pensions should be subsumed into payments for social care is wrong, which is why we have introduced that measure.
Healthcare has remained a continuing priority through the work of the armed forces and veterans health joint group, and we continue to work with the MOD and other stakeholders on specific issues such as streamlining the transfer of military health records. That has become quite frustrating; I had hoped to have made more progress with the MOD by now. On mental health, we have highlighted Scottish Government support for veterans within our mental health strategy and have partnered with local national health service boards and integration joint boards to offer funding totalling £825,000 in 2017-18 to continue to support the veterans first point network.
Recognising the importance of supporting the whole family, we continue to work through the Scottish service children strategy group to guide and engage work to support the educational needs of children from armed forces families in Scotland. Members, especially those with military experience, will know of the particular stresses and strains that can be caused to military families and children by being moved on a regular basis.
I am not sure from the nature of the question whether Mike Rumbles is aware of how veterans first point was established. The Westminster Government provided money from the London interbank offered rate fines and it was assumed that the provision would become part of mainstream health services. That is happening in many areas; even if the original concept with the money provided by LIBOR has now been exhausted, the lessons from it have been learned.
We recognise the importance of supporting the whole family and we continue to work in that regard through the Scottish service children strategic working group, which I mentioned. We also seek to work in the justice system to support veterans who are in contact with the prison system or the police.
Across all of our responsibilities, we will continue to seek to improve our service provision for the armed forces community, especially the small but significant number who struggle to access those services. However, as I do whenever I talk about veterans, it is worth mentioning that, in the vast majority of cases, our veterans are a valuable asset to the civilian workplace and our communities. They have transferable skills and attributes that they have gained throughout their military careers, although they sometimes are not particularly conscious of those or willing to promote them, which they should do. My ambition remains to make Scotland the destination of choice for service leavers through offering high living standards, access to housing, good-quality sustainable jobs and opportunities for skills development.
That the Parliament recognises and values the contribution of the armed forces and veterans community to Scotland; notes the work of the Scottish Veterans Commissioner as described in his reports on transition, housing and employability, skills and learning, and agrees that the Scottish Government should continue to work in partnership to ensure that the armed forces, veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to opportunities across Scotland.
I thank the cabinet secretary for introducing the debate. Particularly at this time of year, it is right that we pay tribute to the important part that the armed forces and veterans community plays in Scottish life. We in the Scottish Conservatives look forward to supporting the cabinet secretary’s motion.
I am glad that the Government has rightly taken the chance to pay tribute to the sterling work of the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, and his team. On a personal note, as convener of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community, I thank Eric Fraser for his engagement with the group. His contribution to its work and the debate in it has been most welcome, and I hope that he, too, has gained something from those gatherings. The veterans commissioner’s reports, which have been on transition, housing, and employability, skills and learning, have set many ambitious recommendations, produced useful information and given all those in the wider armed forces and veterans community plenty of food for thought, which has sparked productive and insightful debate.
In the commissioner’s report on transition, he correctly identifies transition as a critical stage for those leaving the armed forces, and the chance to have a detailed looked at the Scottish perspective on that is welcome. His recommendations on the need for more joined-up working between the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local authorities in supporting those leaving the armed forces hit the nail bang on the head. I think that all of us in the Parliament would agree that helping veterans is not a party-political issue or an issue on which conflict should arise between different levels of government. We need to come together on the issue and get it right for every veteran in Scotland.
In his report on housing, Eric Fraser correctly identified the need for better information for veterans and again highlighted the need for work between the Scottish Government and the UK Government
“to ensure that advice and MoD briefings reflect housing policy and provision in Scotland, so Service Leavers choosing to settle in Scotland are not disadvantaged”.
It is encouraging that Eric Fraser highlighted the importance of the armed forces covenant by advocating the need for local authorities to provide more guidance and information to their front-line staff on the principles of the covenant and on the council’s policy on housing support for veterans.
Eric Fraser’s third report covered the massively important area of employability, skills and learning, to which the cabinet secretary referred. Getting a veteran into a job or training can often be the best thing for helping to turn around their whole life. Thanks to Eric Fraser’s recommendation, we now have a veterans employability strategic working group under the leadership of Mark Bibbey. I would be interested to hear an update from the cabinet secretary on how that group’s work is progressing.
Eric Fraser’s recommendation on the need for better recognition of the qualifications and skills that veterans possess is very important. The work of Business in the Community in that area is a welcome step and, last year, I was glad to have the opportunity to host that charity in the Parliament as it launched its toolkit to support business.
That was not the only important veterans event that we have had in Parliament in the past year. Another one was my colleague Liam Kerr’s members’ business debate in February, on stolen valour. Sadly, a bill that was going through Westminster on that subject fell because of June’s general election and no replacement has come forward so far. The example of James Reilly of Fife, who lied and posed as an ex-Royal Marine and then stole £60,000 that was meant to support veterans, highlights the need for action in this area. I would be interested to hear from the Government whether any consideration has been given to introducing legislation on that.
I hope that my amendment will receive support from all sides of the chamber. It is vital that we recognise the importance of the many veterans charities that support our veterans in many ways, some in difficult circumstances. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary said that that would be looked at, which I welcome.
At least 320 armed forces charities operate in Scotland, providing a wide variety of services to the veterans community, such as health and wellbeing services and activities, education, employment and careers services, and housing. The scale and nature of those charities differ massively. There are large nationally recognised organisations, such as Poppyscotland and Royal British Legion Scotland, and smaller organisations that do work that is just as valuable through the numerous veterans breakfast clubs, drop-in centres and community cafes that are run across the nation.
One example of the massive amount that such charities do is the Lothian Veterans Centre in Dalkeith. It delivers more than 200 hours of support sessions or activities a month to support veterans. It has welcomed more than 160 new clients in total so far this year, in addition to the many regulars and returnees, including a small but increasing number of partners and family members—the numbers are three to four times up on last year’s. The centre covers a wide range of the veterans community, from early service leavers to those who are retired. It supports veterans from all three services and from throughout the Lothian region. The type of work that the centre does is spread across just as large an area. It supports veterans with health and wellbeing advice, housing and benefit advice and help with employment and training, and it runs a drop-in centre.
The work of the drop-in centre, in particular, is valuable. I had the pleasure of attending one of the Friday bacon roll mornings at the centre. It was just as enjoyable as it sounds, but it had a serious side as well, providing a safe space for veterans to talk about their issues and concerns, and access to the support that they need.
Lothian Veterans Centre is just one example of a great locally run veterans charity. There are numerous other examples across Scotland that I could highlight. However, groups such as Lothian Veterans Centre struggle. The cost of their services is high, and accessing funds can be a struggle, due to the high barriers to entry for funding that are placed in front of them. We need to do more to support such groups. Without them, the cost to and impact on our local authorities would be great and the negative impact on veterans even greater.
I urge the cabinet secretary and ministers to look at how we can support smaller veterans charities and groups that are doing great work and want to do even more, but need a bit of support. I am sure that members from all parties are willing to support them in that great work.
When the minister sums up, I would be pleased to hear whether the Scottish Government will support my call for Scotland to host the Invictus games. I have made that call previously in this chamber, as I believe that the games would be a great success and would help to raise the profile of the issues that face our disabled servicemen and women and veterans.
I move amendment S5M-08855.1, to insert, after “skills and learning”:
“; further notes the importance of third sector veterans’ charities in caring for the welfare of the armed forces and veterans community and of ensuring that such charities are able to survive and thrive into the future.”
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak in a debate about armed forces veterans and the work of the Scottish veterans commissioner, and to talk about some of the vital support services and charities that operate in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
I acknowledge, from the outset, the debt of gratitude that Scotland owes to those who have served in the defence of the freedoms that we enjoy, and I record the continued support of Labour members for our armed forces personnel and veterans. We are committed to continuing to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that our veterans and their families receive the support that they need and deserve. In particular, we recognise that our service personnel often need help with the transition to civilian life, and especially with finding housing and employment. We recognise that those who leave the services can bear physical and psychological scars for many years after their active service ends.
Being a member of the armed forces, particularly during times of conflict is immensely stressful—it is stressful beyond anything that we can imagine. However, that stressful situation creates among service personnel a level of commitment and an intense bond that are unique to our armed forces.
I could only listen and try to take it on board when I heard from a soldier who had served in Afghanistan what it was like to come under fire, and what the impact was on him and his battalion when they lost a member who was as close to them as any member of their own family.
Given the close bond with the comrades whom they fought with, and possibly lost, in combat, I can only imagine how isolated a person must feel when they are discharged into society from the armed forces alone, with no family support. They go from living in close quarters with people whom they have considered to be family—they eat, sleep, work and socialise with the same close group—to being discharged into a community of strangers who tend not to understand military life and the bond that it creates between people.
The majority of servicemen and servicewomen make a successful transition to civilian life. The veterans whom we have in Scotland are not a problem, but an asset to communities. As the cabinet secretary said, veterans have transferable skills that they may not realise they have, and those skills become assets to companies and communities.
It really is not hard to see why some veterans struggle to adapt and to reintegrate, which can put a massive strain on family life. It can also put a strain on those without family. Therefore, it is vital that advice and support services be in place to help former services personnel to adjust to living in mainstream society. We must support plans to co-ordinate and to deliver support and advice services from the public, private and voluntary sectors for former services personnel, their partners and their children.
There are too many fantastic organisations providing support and advice to former services personnel and their families for me to mention and do justice to them all, but I will mention some. We must continue to support the organisations that do that tremendous work in the community for former services personnel across Scotland, including Legion Scotland. The Legion provides practical care, advice and support to armed forces personnel, former servicemen and servicewomen of all ages and their families. It also runs the annual poppy appeal. Recent appeals have emphasised the increasing need to help the men and women who are serving today, as well as former servicepeople and their dependents. The Legion also assists any former serviceman or servicewoman in pursuing their entitlement to a war disablement pension. Every year, up to 200 former servicepeople in Scotland are represented at war pensions tribunals.
Just across the road from Parliament, we have Scottish Veterans Residences premises, which provide residential accommodation for more than 300 former servicepeople and their partners. It has helped thousands of veterans throughout Scotland since it was established.
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help—SSAFA Forces Help—whose Lanarkshire branch covers my region, offers financial, practical and much-needed emotional support to current and previous members of the armed forces and their families through services such as forcesline. Forcesline is a key support service that is independent from the chain of command and to which serving members of the armed forces can go, confident that they will receive the support and advice that they need. SSAFA Forces Help also runs a forces additional needs disability support group and organises children’s holidays that are run by volunteers who offer experiences and activities to which some of the children would not normally have access. Erskine Hospital, which I will mention when I close this debate on behalf of Labour, is the leading provider of care for veterans in the country and provides fantastic services in our communities.
There are things that individual members of the Scottish Parliament can do to assist armed forces veterans and their families: supporting those charities and the work of the Scottish veterans commissioner is just the start.
I close as I opened, by acknowledging the debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have served in our armed forces in defence of the freedoms that we take for granted.
We will support the Government’s motion at decision time. As always, we are more than happy to work across parties to support veterans and armed forces personnel in Scotland.
We are now in the 100th year since the first world war drew to its conclusion. Therefore, it is appropriate to take just a little time in this important debate on veterans to reflect on the contribution that Stirling made during that most hellish of wars.
Many members know that Stirling castle was a hub for recruitment during world war one. Stirling’s central location and railway access made it the perfect spot for recruitment and transit of troops and other personnel. The young men who trained and gathered at Stirling castle would march down to the railway station at the beginning of a journey that would see many of them complete their life journeys in places of horror such as the killing fields and muddy hell that was Flanders.
When I attend the remembrance service at the Church of the Holy Rude, which is at the top of the city in Stirling, as I did on Sunday past, I cannot help but think that those men walked down past the church on their way to the railway station. In numbers too great to imagine, they made the ultimate sacrifice and, in the century that followed, others did the same. Countless numbers returned from the battlefields of the past and present with broken bodies and broken minds. For that reason, among others, the debate is important.
My family has its own proud connections with the military. One of my sons served in the Royal Air Force, my father was in the Royal Household Cavalry and my grandfather fought in the Scottish Horse during the first world war. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli and, like many men of his generation, would discuss some of the horrors that he had witnessed only very quietly after a few drams at family gatherings. Those stories had a real impact on me as a young man.
I have no doubt that my grandfather was left damaged by what he had witnessed—especially in the battles with the armies of Turkey that he told us about. In all likelihood, he would today be recognised as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and would be able to access services and help from organisations such as PTSD Resolution or Combat Stress, which are charities that help veterans to re-engage with mainstream life. PTSD Resolution once said of veterans who are seeking help that
“They quite often find us because their partner has told them: ‘You have to get help because I can’t do anything more’.”
We can just see the utter desperation of families who have to deal with damaged men and women who have come back from areas of conflict. Such organisations do an amazing job trying to help them. The more support that we can give them, the better.
Although much of our discussion today will undoubtedly be about the importance of making support services accessible, the quotation that I used tells us that there is also an important role for families and loved ones to play in the recovery of some veterans. We do that a lot better today than we did for people like my grandfather in the past.
In the early days of the first Scottish National Party minority Government, not long after I was appointed as a minister the then First Minister asked me to take on the role of liaison between the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Government. At a meeting with the tri-service heads soon after we came into government, Alex Salmond said powerfully that the armed forces, particularly our veterans, are among the vital threads that make up the tartan of Scotland. The then First Minister was pledging that we would strive to make veterans’ services in Scotland the best that are available anywhere on these islands.
At First Minister’s question time last week, the current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in response to my question, laid out how some of that pledge has been put into effect. The cabinet secretary referred to those matters today, as did Maurice Corry.
Since 2008, more than £1 million has been invested, through the Scottish veterans fund, to support more than 140 projects across Scotland. That funding has provided invaluable support in important devolved areas such as housing, health and employment support for veterans. An employability group has been established to lead work in that area, and £5 million has rightly been committed to ensuring that veterans who are in receipt of social care receive the full value of their war pensions. The rationale for that was laid out well by the cabinet secretary.
That work is vital because it is a widely known fact that, for people who leave the armed forces, settling into mainstream life anywhere in the United Kingdom can be a real challenge. That is reflected in a report from the UK Ministry of Justice, earlier this year that showed that 2,500 former armed services personnel began serving prison sentences last year. That indicates that there is a real need to address how we can improve mental health and wellbeing in the veterans community. It is true that because of the skills that they have gained in the armed services and the values with which they come out of the services, the vast majority of veterans make remarkable contributions to our society and life in Scotland. However, there are still real challenges that we must continue to tackle and face head on, in order to ensure that we, as a society, offer our veterans the best possible support.
With that in mind, I pay tribute to the work that is being done by Stirling District Citizens Advice Bureau Ltd to provide advice and support to the armed services community and their families. Citizens Advice Scotland’s armed services advice project works with a funding group that is fronted by Poppyscotland, which does an amazing job. The project offers support where it can to serving or former armed forces personnel—regular or reserve—and their dependants. The service is a lifeline for those who use it. It offers valuable advice and specialist help in a range of areas, including welfare entitlement, debt management, seeking employment, as well as relationships and housing. The support is free, confidential and impartial—which is exactly what many men and women who have close connections with the armed forces need to help them to deal with the stresses of everyday life.
I commend the Government for bringing this hugely important matter forward for debate, especially given that, as Maurice Corry said, we have just had the remembrance day services. I look forward to hearing other members’ contributions.
This important debate comes at the time of the year when the country comes together to remember the sacrifices that have been made in the defence of others not only by soldiers, sailors and airmen, but by civilians. All veterans regularly remember the actions of friends and colleagues—not just on remembrance day but every day of the year.
On the recent remembrance Sunday, I remembered, as I always do, the tragic events of July 1982 in London, when my regiment and friends were targeted by the Irish Republican Army. I have mentioned that event before in the chamber, so I will not dwell on it. I also thought of those veterans who have put their lives on the line to defend the country and who are being hounded in their retirement and dragged through the courts to answer accusations that have already been investigated and the cases closed.
Dennis Hutchings is a former Life Guard, and one of many veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles, who is facing legal action. I am mindful of what I say about this, but in June 1974, while on patrol in County Tyrone, Dennis came across an IRA unit of 10 men moving arms and ammunition. A firefight broke out, which resulted in four people being arrested and the remainder escaping. Just two days later, in the same area, his patrol encountered two men who ran off when they were challenged. One of the men who ran off was subsequently shot—it is with regard to that incident that Dennis has been charged, despite two investigations in which he was told that the matter was closed.
He tried to live a normal life in the same way that John Downey did post the bombing in Hyde Park of which he was accused. The difference is that Downey received a letter, which, admittedly, was sent in error, which said that he would not be charged with the bombing and that he is now free from prosecution.
I do not believe that it is right to judge the actions of armed forces in combat in the same way that we assess what is acceptable behaviour for people in normal society. As parliamentarians, we must fulfil our basic duty to our veterans by protecting them from such prosecutions.
A report by the UK Defence Committee stated:
“to subject former Service personnel to legal pursuit under the current arrangements is wholly oppressive and a denial of natural justice.”
I therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to make the new legacy bodies “fair, balanced and proportionate” and I welcome the UK Government’s announcement that the consultation document on the forthcoming draft Northern Ireland bill will include alternative ways forward, including a statute of limitations. Although I accept that it is a reserved matter, I hope that Scottish MPs of all parties will support that.
Although the issue of legacy investigations did not form part of Eric Fraser’s report, it is an important issue that veterans who have served on active duty have to face, which is why I mentioned it.
I commend the Scottish Government for all the action that it is taking to help veterans and I thank Eric Fraser for his report. It is difficult for anyone to dispute that we owe so much to those in uniform who, at our behest, have been prepared to put everything on the line. We need to stand beside them and with them and we need to have their back when the going gets tough, because we have no idea what they have faced or the stresses that they have to deal with.
I want to mention briefly the importance of regimental or unit charities that fundraise directly from the public. Those charities are so important not only for veterans, but for their families. The latter, who are often excluded from direct governmental support, benefit from the flexibility of charities. The Household Cavalry Foundation has already helped families and children of soldiers who have served in the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, giving them help that they sadly cannot get from other sources. On average, the charity allocates £100,000 per year to helping soldiers and their families, which includes £30,000 to £40,000 paid directly to families and their children. That is but one charity, but the work that it undertakes for the Household Cavalry is replicated in nearly all units and regiments across the British Isles, as well as in the air force and the navy.
I urge the Scottish Government to help protect members of our armed services who have been cleared by military investigations from being prosecuted many years later for no apparent gain.
I commend the actions taken by the Scottish Government in its work with veterans and I urge the Government to continue to ensure that we repay our debt to our armed services without questioning the need to do so.
In contributing to previous debates on this subject I talked about my late grandfather, who stimulated my interest in the military and veterans from a young age. He served in the Gordon Highlanders. He lied about his age to join in 1921 and worked his way up through the ranks, returning to civilian life in 1945 with the rank of major. Along the way, Major James McIntosh was awarded the military cross for heroism in north Africa. Sadly, he died 45 years ago, as a result of which I was denied the opportunity to engage with him meaningfully about just what he and his comrades had experienced during world war two and how that impacted on him—a subject in which I have formed an interest in adult life.
Mind you, I am not sure about the extent to which he would have been willing to open up. Unlike Bruce Crawford’s granddad, not even the taking of a dram or two would loosen his tongue. My grandfather founded the 5th and 7th old comrades association—a clear indication of the value that he and his old pals placed on the common bond that they had—but he rarely spoke in detail of what they had encountered during the battle of El Alamein or indeed in Italy.
He dismissed the action that won him the military cross as having emanated from him finding himself and his men halfway into a minefield before realising where they were and having the choice of either going forward or backwards. He said that they gave him a medal for making the decision that he made. I learned later that he was recognised in the way that he was for dealing with a machine gun nest or two in order to lead his men to safety.
In an all-too-rare moment of opening up, though, he did once explain that the 5th and 7th amalgamation had come about as a result of the losses that the individual battalions had suffered in conflict—a rather sobering scenario, especially for those who had witnessed the deaths of so many close friends.
I am now considerably older than I was when that conversation took place and, mindful of how our understanding of the mental scars left on our service personnel has developed, I wonder just how badly that generation was let down. That is not a criticism as such. It was a different time and PTSD had not been fully recognised then, but, oh, how we must have failed so many of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in returning them to civvy life and leaving them to cope however they could with the horrors that they had witnessed. We can multiply that tenfold when we consider our treatment of servicemen from the first world war.
We cannot change that, of course, but we can and we must ensure that all possible support is provided for personnel nowadays—not only for those who leave the services with mental or physical issues, but for all personnel.
On the redressing of past wrongs, in so far as we can do that, the decision in 2006 of Des Browne, the then Secretary of State for Defence, to pardon the 306 British soldiers who were executed for desertion or cowardice during world war one was a commendable step. We now know that it is likely that those men were suffering from PTSD. The family of Private Harry Farr had sought a judicial review following a previous decision not to grant a pardon. Harry Farr fought for two years without respite and was suffering from PTSD when he was shot for cowardice. After he was executed, his family received no military pension and his widow and his daughter were forced out of their house and suffered financial hardship, stigma and shame.
Incidentally, the National Theatre of Scotland has begun to chart the story of those 306 soldiers and the effects on those who were left behind. I understand that the first two parts of its trilogy have been extremely powerful, and the third part is still to come.
In that context, and in relation to those who may be carrying with them a mental legacy from service, I pay tribute to the work that is done by Combat Stress. I had not realised until the weekend, when I took part in the remembrance service in Monifieth, that Combat Stress will celebrate its centenary in 2019, having been set up a year after the first world war ended. While the state may have been providing little in the way of meaningful care, the founders of Combat Stress recognised that thousands of servicemen were returning from the front line with severe mental health problems and were receiving little or no sympathy, let alone support.
The charity’s founders believed that veterans could be helped to cope with their mental health problems through a rehabilitation programme. In 1919, Combat Stress started providing occupational therapy, which is still offered today at its treatment centres and via its community teams. In 2016-17, 10,000 calls were handled by Combat Stress’s helpline; more than 2,000 referrals were received by Combat Stress from former servicemen and women who were struggling with their mental health; about 1,200 veterans completed their treatment programmes; and, positively, 93 per cent of those who undertook the PTSD intensive treatment programme completed it.
Over the past 12 months, 269 Scottish veterans have been referred to the charity for the first time, and it currently has 375 veterans in Scotland registered with it. Encouragingly, it seems that veterans are now coming forward for help much earlier. On average, veterans used to wait for 12 years after leaving the forces before seeking help. Combat Stress has seen Afghanistan veterans, on average, seeking help three years after leaving the service and Iraq war veterans seeking help after four years.
Combat Stress has a network of community teams across the country that provide clinical assessment and support to veterans in their communities. Each team is made up of a community psychiatric nurse and an occupational therapist. Poppyscotland pop-in centres are used for its community clinics. Combat Stress has three treatment centres, one of which is in Ayrshire, and it has taken steps to increase its capacity to support people across the UK since 2012. In 2013, the charity was commissioned as the PTSD specialist provider for veterans in Scotland.
The Scottish Government continues to provide funding of £3.6 million over the three years to 2018 for the provision of specialist services in partnership with NHS Scotland for veterans who are resident at Hollybush house in Scotland. A full range of specialist mental health assessment, treatment, education, advice and support is offered to help recovery and to improve the quality of life for those veterans around Scotland who need assistance. It takes an important step by utilising peer support—who better to support veterans than others who have served in our forces and had similar experiences?
I am pleased to note that the Scottish Government is investing in mental health services for veterans, with £825,000 being provided this year to support the veterans first point services network, in which there are various centres across Scotland, including one that serves Tayside in Kings Cross hospital in Dundee. I understand that Combat Stress is building positive relationships with that network.
At the beginning of the year, I led a members’ business debate on the Scottish veterans commissioner’s report on employability and skills. In Eric Fraser’s latest paper, on health and wellbeing, he seeks to correct the misconception that veterans’ health is worse than that of the general population, although he notes that their needs can differ. The paper has been welcomed by Combat Stress. I look forward to reading the reports that will follow on from the commissioner’s paper, and I look forward to the Scottish Government building on the targeted and significant support that it currently provides for our veterans.
I echo the welcome for the debate from members around the chamber.
As I prepared for the debate, my thoughts turned to my grandfather, who died just over a year and a half ago. He served in the RAF and spent the majority of his service in Fort William working with mountain rescue. That was at a critical time when the mountain rescue service was at a point of transition from being an exclusively military function, which was founded in order to rescue downed airmen during the second world war, to becoming the civilian service that we recognise today.
It made me think that direct experience of conflict or of service in the military is becoming less common. Twenty, 30 or 40 years ago, most of us would have had a family member who had either seen action in the second world war or, at the very least, had gone through national service in one of our armed services. As the number of people with direct experience of service diminishes, we need to take greater care to change our thoughts and views about what remembrance means. Remembrance must always be first and foremost about remembering those who served, fought to secure our freedoms and liberty, and paid the ultimate price, but it is incumbent on us also to ensure that remembrance is about a wider understanding of what service and the armed services mean. Serving in the armed services is sometimes about paying the ultimate sacrifice, but it is also about the wider, richer experience that is gained from the broad range of functions, such as mountain rescue, that the armed forces carry out.
I will address that in my speech, as well as some of the points that other members have made about transition. I am mindful that we are very lucky that the debate is being led by people such as Keith Brown, Maurice Corry and Edward Mountain who have seen that transition in action. I can only imagine what it must be like, but they can speak about it from direct experience.
Coming out of the armed forces is a significant issue for those who do so. For anyone changing jobs, there are a huge number of considerations such as what skills will be needed and what the differences are between the old and new jobs. However, when someone comes out of the armed forces, it is not just their tasks or responsibilities that change, but their whole way of life. Mark Griffin put it very well when he described transition as coming out of a family and into, potentially, a community of strangers.
We are right to praise the work of the veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, who has done excellent work in highlighting the many transition issues that our veterans face, particularly with regard to skills. Many of our servicemen and women have highly relevant skills in a broad range of areas. We often hear that there are skills gaps in areas of our economy, so I urge the Government to ensure that we maximise the use of the skills of those who leave the armed forces. In my previous career, I worked alongside a number of people who had come from the RAF with extremely good and highly useful digital and IT skills and who were using them successfully. We often think of people in the armed forces as primarily combatants, but they are also highly skilled technicians and engineers. We must ensure that we use their skills when they return to civilian life.
Recommendation 11 in the commissioner’s report refers to a plan for early service leavers in particular. It is vital that we upskill those people and provide retraining possibilities for them. I very much welcome what Keith Brown said about apprenticeship week and the world of work website. However, the Scottish Government agreed to have a plan for early service leavers by May 2017, and I am not aware that such a plan has yet been produced. Can the minister clarify the status of that plan?
On a broader point, we need to ensure not only that people leaving the armed forces have information available to them but that, as far as possible, their transition is integrated and seamless. We must ensure that they start their skills journey before they leave the armed forces and that their learning experiences in the armed forces link directly to their opportunities afterwards. The issue is not necessarily just modern apprenticeships or the skills regime; we must also look at articulation and other education issues. The commissioner made that point. How people who are leaving the armed forces access different points in the education system and move between them is important. We need to ask how such educational matters are made relevant to people in the armed forces. Articulation and ensuring that people get credit for the skills and experience that they have from being in the armed forces is particularly important.
The provision of better information on housing to veterans and those who are about to leave the armed forces is welcome, but there are still issues. Certainly, I have dealt with casework involving people who are about to leave the armed forces and are looking for council housing. Often, the reality is that they have to move across the city where they live, which can rip up their family roots and present issues around schools and their families’ ability generally to get on with their lives. That is an issue for people who are in MOD housing that is just beyond my consistency boundary, but it is also an issue generally.
The issues around transition do not always happen at the point when someone leaves the armed forces. Bruce Crawford made a very good point about the shocking statistics, which we often hear about, regarding the proportion of armed forces leavers who end up in prison. Issues that arise from transition from the armed forces do not always happen immediately; often they happen further down the line. It is important that we ensure that we maintain on-going relationships and communication with armed services leavers so that we can catch those problems. However, I am not sure that we are doing that at the moment.
On my recent visits through the armed forces parliamentary visit programme, I was very taken by the rich variety of things that the armed forces do around health, emotional wellbeing and skills. This debate is about ensuring that we help people when they come out of the armed forces. However, with regard to co-operation and partnership, we can learn many things about our public policy from the armed forces because they do a great deal of work around such areas as health, emotional wellbeing and skills, and there are lessons for us to learn from that.
The Government’s motion states that
“the Scottish Government should continue to work in partnership to ensure that the armed forces, veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to opportunities across Scotland.”
I want to focus my contribution in a completely different direction from that which other contributions have taken: on the opportunities that are or ought to be available to the spouses, partners and, indeed, children of serving personnel. I want to do that with particular reference to a programme that is run by Women’s Enterprise Scotland, or WES. That is a business-creation project that is supported by the Scottish Government through its general funding to Women’s Enterprise Scotland and the armed forces covenant to the tune of £20,000, which is not a lot of money. Its purpose is to unlock the business potential of military spouses and partners. There is a 10-week training course. A report on the project that was published in February this year said that 76 per cent of participants took steps to create a business during the course and that, by the end of the course, 100 per cent of participants reported that they had the confidence to set up a business.
The project, which both the cabinet secretary and I have visited, is based at Glencorse in my constituency. A 1.5 hour face-to-face workshop is held each week with online support, and a much-needed crèche is provided, although toddlers tend to invade the meetings. A group of wives came to the Parliament to explain their projects, which varied from massage to mask making—I have a picture to prove the latter. I thank colleagues who attended. I know that the wives and partners were very pleased to see colleagues there.
WES has successfully secured from the MOD covenant fund a further £20,000 and another 10-week course. I have been on a visit to see that. There is a monster maker and special effects artist; a human resources consultancy; a virtual assistant; a retailer of slogan and personalised T-shirts—I have one of those on order, but it is not for me; it is my brother’s Christmas present—and gifts; a bath bomb maker; a massage therapist; and a soft furnishings supplier. All those businesses have market opportunities, but they need support and business insights to enable them to transition from a possibility to a business reality and a career prospect.
However, there is more to the course than business, important though that is. We all know that military wives and partners find it nigh-on impossible to take on regular employment because of the peripatetic nature of military life. They are also often on their own with children for months on end and far removed from close family. Although they support one another, the project builds self-confidence, is very sociable and, in a way, gives them back a sense of independence. Given the nature of their partners’ work in the armed forces, their ambitions often have to take second place, but the programme offers them something that they can achieve for themselves. I would even go so far as to say that it adds to the provision of a positive and stable home environment for their partners who are active in the armed forces on their return home, because it gives the wives and partners something that they achieve on their own terms for themselves. That is very important when a person gives up quite a bit of themselves to, quite rightly, support their husband or partner in the armed forces. Indeed, some business projects may very well grow into something more substantial. If the husband moves base or is posted abroad, the wife’s work can travel with them, with internet sales and advertising through Facebook, for example. The business is not fixed; it is online.
The continuation of the project and, indeed, its extension elsewhere is, like most things in life, dependent on funding. I am therefore delighted that the funding has continued to give on-going support to women who start up in business, because there is more to it once they start up. They must be enabled to support the growing businesses, to integrate more with the local business community, and to grow the business links, contacts and networks that are critical for growth and sustainability. With more funding, another new group of women would be supported along the road—a 10-week course is running now—to start up a business. As they moved forward, there would be the ability to network with women in existing businesses who had preceded them. In that way, they would get peer support and access to mentoring. That would also help with sustainability.
I would be pleased to see the MOD backing more of those projects, because that project works so well. Members do not need to take my word for it; if they log on to startupwithwes.com, they can read for themselves the report from February and see how worth while the project is. I commend it to colleagues who have army barracks in their areas and have not had such a project set up.
As I said, I wanted to take a different tack, about supporting the wives and partners of active personnel, now and in the future, so that they can have an independent career and life for themselves. I thought that it was important to bring that issue to the chamber, among the other contributions.
I am pleased to speak in this debate on Scottish Government support for our veterans, and I am happy to follow Christine Grahame, who mentioned Glencorse barracks several times in her speech. I spent the first two of my 15 years in the Army at Glencorse barracks with the Scottish infantry, so I know it well.
I make it clear that the Liberal Democrats will fully support the Government’s motion and the Conservatives’ amendment. I hope that there is unanimous support for them—it is heartening to hear support for our veterans from right across the chamber.
However, I take this opportunity to raise a case where the Government’s support has not been exactly fulsome. I refer, of course, to the network of veterans first point centres, which is a lifeline service that was first set up in Scotland with money gathered from UK banks in LIBOR fines. That funding has run out. The Scottish Government offered to continue funding the first point centres, but would guarantee only 50 per cent of the funding, with the other 50 per cent having to come out of health board budgets. The veterans first point service is a lifeline service, and six of the eight centres are still open because their health boards are stepping into the breach. Unfortunately, the Grampian and Highland centres are closed because, even with the 50 per cent funding from the Scottish Government, no health board funding could be found. That does not let the Scottish Government off the hook, because I lay the responsibility for those closures squarely at the feet of Scottish ministers collectively, but particularly health ministers. It is a pity that Maureen Watt, who has responsibility for the issue, is not here to hear that.
I am glad that Mike Rumbles raised the issue of sincerity, because I understand why he has directed his attack at the Scottish Government. Surely there is also a role here for the UK Government. Why is he not addressing that as well, if this is a serious attempt to get real funding into that organisation? It is not just about the Scottish Government.
I will pursue that issue, and I will show members why I blame the Scottish Government in a moment.
Let me focus on the service that was available in Grampian, because that is what I know best. Veterans first point Grampian completed its service to our veterans community on Friday 22 September. Its closure notice stated:
“Veterans in this area should contact their GP for health related issues and the Veterans First Point Scotland Team for their closest centre.”
The nearest centre available to veterans in Grampian is in the NHS Tayside area. That is what the Government and Grampian NHS board mean when they say that
“their needs will continue to be met through mainstream services.”
In other words, they are saying, “Go and visit your general practitioner.”
The reason why the Grampian service closed its doors on 22 September was simply that the cash-strapped health board could not afford to make a 50 per cent contribution. I can answer the question why NHS Grampian could not fund a service for its veterans when other boards could: it is all down to funding from the Scottish Government. Last week, the Parliament’s independent information service informed us all that the Scottish Government has failed to meet its own funding target for NHS Grampian every year since 2009. It has short-changed NHS Grampian to the tune of £165.6 million over that period. So that no one misunderstands me, I reiterate that that is the Scottish Government’s own target.
The Government already fails people in the Grampian area by giving it the lowest funding target of any health board anyway. Per head of population, NHS Grampian is targeted to receive only 90 per cent of the average funding per head of population. To take away another £165 million over that period has had a cumulative and devastating effect on patient care. No wonder there were 3,700 fewer planned operations last year. No wonder the waiting times are ever extending. No wonder that NHS Grampian does not have the funding to keep the first point service for veterans running. I hope that everyone in the chamber accepts that that is not an acceptable situation.
The Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, has come to the chamber to say how much the Scottish Government supports veterans. I believe that he is sincere. He has personally done a great deal of work, and so has the Scottish Government. However, it is not all good work. When health ministers preside over such a sorry state of affairs, it is not good enough.
Actions speak louder than words. We cannot sit in the chamber saying that life is rosy for our veterans when services are closing because they are underfunded. I would like the Government to take action—I hope that Keith Brown will take action, because I know that he is sincere about this—to restore that lifeline service to veterans who are resident in the north-east.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and I thank Keith Brown and the Scottish Government for bringing the motion to Parliament. The debate gives each of us an opportunity to thank and show our support for our armed forces and veterans community for the valued contribution that they make to Scotland.
I welcome the tone and tenor of almost all the speeches. I was struck in particular by Daniel Johnson’s speech, in which he referred to the situation 30 or 40 years ago, when perhaps every family across Scotland and the UK had a member who was serving, or had served, in the forces, and the power that that had to knit communities together. Bruce Crawford spoke of his grandfather who served, I think, in a mounted regiment in Gallipoli. My great-grandfather, Hugh McCabe, of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, also served at Gallipoli. Those century-old threads still bind us together.
On remembrance Sunday, I had the honour of laying wreaths in Kilbarchan, Lochwinnoch, Neilston and Barrhead in my constituency of Renfrewshire South. Laying a wreath is always a particularly poignant moment, but it was made more so when I met a constituent at the Barrhead service who had known my maternal grandfather, Arthur McGettigan. He died more than a decade before I was born, but I had heard many stories of him. I heard stories of his time as a student, when he was dux of St John’s in Barrhead; of his employment, when he was the foreman of the pottery at the Shanks works; of his membership of the Knights of St Columba and his involvement in setting up the Columba club in Barrhead; and of his time as a former citizens advice volunteer who had even considered running for the local council.
In that chance meeting with my constituent last Sunday, I learned that my grandfather—or Big Arthur, as he was known—was the person who people called on if they required help with just about anything. I also learned that he was, apparently, a fine dancer and great company. He was, in short, a pillar of the Barrhead community. Arthur McGettigan served not only his community but his country. As a sergeant in the Royal Artillery in the second world war, he saw action in Greece, north Africa and Italy. From that conflict, the lessons of which have perhaps never been more relevant, my grandfather carried not only the scars of shrapnel but a sense of leadership and duty that he took into his post-service life as a reservist and in the Barrhead community.
That my grandfather could be spoken of so fondly nearly 46 years after his death by the constituent whom I met on remembrance Sunday speaks to the profoundly positive impact that those who serve and have served in our armed forces are capable of having on our lives and our communities. It is important and proper that, in this Parliament and in the communities that we represent, we continue to recognise that contribution.
Such an opportunity was afforded to me earlier this year when I attended the Renfrewshire Provost’s awards, at which 102 Field Squadron, 71 Engineer Regiment of the Army reserve, which is based in Paisley, was awarded the freedom of Renfrewshire. As well as serving recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the squadron has helped with flooding in Renfrewshire and across the UK and has supported local charities and family days.
Renfrewshire’s association with the armed forces and veterans community goes further. It is also home to Erskine, a name that has been associated with the care of veterans for more than a century. Also in Renfrewshire is Scottish War Blinded’s newly opened Hawkhead centre, which is a state-of-the-art daytime activity centre for veterans with sight loss. I know that those services and the support that they offer are very much welcomed by our forces and veterans community right across the west of Scotland.
Next year will mark the centenary of the end of the first world war. The year will offer much opportunity for reflection on the contribution and sacrifices made by our armed forces and veterans. It will also afford us the opportunity to consider how we can strengthen our support for serving personnel, veterans and their families.
It is timely that next year will also mark 10 years since the creation of the Scottish veterans fund. Since then, over £1 million has been committed to more than 140 projects. I am pleased to see that the fund has been re-developed in partnership with Standard Life Aberdeen to provide dedicated additional funding that is focused on employability. That will complement the Scottish Government’s continuing work on employability, such as the veterans employability strategic group and the capitalising on military talent toolkit, which supports employers in understanding the skills that veterans have to offer. Along with developing support for early or young service leavers and exploring ways to highlight best practice in public service recruitment, it is clear that the Scottish Government is working hard to ensure that no veteran faces a disadvantage in securing employment as they transition to civilian life.
There are many other areas that I could cover, including housing, health and support for the children and families both of serving personnel and of veterans. However, in closing I would like to acknowledge the amendment in the name of Maurice Corry. It is true that our third sector makes an invaluable contribution to the care and welfare of our veterans and forces community. Equally, as I am sure that Maurice Corry and other members would agree, our veterans and forces community makes an important contribution to the running of veterans charities and the wider third sector.
It is an honour to represent the forces and veterans community of Renfrewshire South in our Scottish Parliament. It is the dedication, professionalism and courage of our armed forces that guarantees each of us, here and beyond, the privilege of living in a free and democratic society. I look forward to continuing to support our forces and veterans community and to supporting the Scottish Government’s work to ensure that members of the armed forces, veterans and their families receive the best support and access to opportunities across Scotland.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on such an important issue and to commend our courageous veterans.
My family does not have a long history in the armed forces, although my great-uncle served at the Somme as a blacksmith looking after the now-famous war horses.
During the summer recess, colleagues across the chamber were fortunate to spend time with the armed forces at Lossiemouth and to hear first hand about some of the issues that members of the armed forces and their partners face in living and moving around the country, sometimes with very little notice. I think that I speak for everyone in Parliament today when I say that we are enormously grateful for their service to our country. At this time in particular, they are very much at the forefront of our thoughts.
That said, the service of those men and women to our country does not end when they finish their deployment, and neither should our support for them. After returning from combat, veterans are often left to face a harsh and unique transition back to ordinary life. It has been found that 33 per cent of former services personnel feel isolated or lonely due to mental or physical health issues. That is a deeply concerning statistic. Although it may not be representative of all veterans’ experiences, it is imperative that we acknowledge and show our support for veterans as they readjust. I am pleased that both the Scottish and UK Governments are taking action to tackle the issue.
Third sector veterans charities play a vital role in helping with the complex transition. Last year, armed forces charities helped more than 22,000 individuals to find employment, and they helped more than 3,000 individuals to gain qualifications. Charities also helped veterans with other less-discussed hardships of readjustment, including by providing them with advice and housing services.
I will take this moment to highlight two charities in my Galloway and West Dumfries constituency. South West Scotland RNR provides activity holidays for injured servicemen who have returned from action, most recently from Afghanistan. Next January will mark the charity’s ninth anniversary as a host for services personnel. Since it opened, it has hosted more than 400 returning servicemen in a house in the coastal village of Carsethorn on the Solway Firth, in what everyone in the chamber acknowledges is Scotland’s most beautiful constituency, which will, I hope, be Scotland’s third national park. Servicemen and bereaved families are provided with accommodation for a week-long holiday that is filled with outdoor activities and plenty of good local food. South West Scotland RNR allows ex-servicemen to take a real break in a friendly and comfortable location away from military rules. It provides a much-needed and deserved place of peace for our armed forces personnel, and I am incredibly grateful for the service that it provides right in the heart of my community.
Dumfries and Galloway is also home to a branch of SSAFA. The branch exists for veterans and veterans’ families around Dumfries and Galloway and it helps them to find emotional, financial and practical support. As part of the national SSAFA charity, the branch is committed to serving our armed forces and their families in whatever way it can, with a network of trained volunteers in the community and on military bases.
It is important to acknowledge that the readjustment period is different for each veteran and their family. SSAFA’s wide range of services, from housing support to mental-illness counselling, allows it to help each serviceman however they need it most. The Dumfries and Galloway branch plays a vital role for veterans in their community, and its mission will work with continued support from me and other members from across the chamber. Veterans charities such as South West Scotland RNR and SSAFA play an invaluable role in supporting veterans and their families. It is our role to ensure that those charities continue to grow and provide aid.
I also take this opportunity to thank Eric Fraser, who is a Royal Navy veteran of 37 years’ service. Mr Fraser has been Scotland’s inaugural veterans commissioner since the office was created in 2014. I commend the Scottish Government’s move to bring veterans’ needs into consideration when Government ministers are looking at new legislation. The veterans commissioner says that Scotland’s approach is
“largely encouraging but there is no room for complacency and I am convinced that more can and needs to be done. By no stretch of the imagination does the system need overhauled.”
That is reassuring, but Mr Fraser also notes that local authorities, Government agencies and housing providers that give general information about housing options in Scotland often simply fail to reach veterans and services leavers because the information is poorly presented, managed and disseminated. The Government is making good progress in communicating with our veterans, but we should also be conscious of how we present and provide help to the community. The Government is within reach of securing that: once again, I commend the action that has been taken so far.
Veterans can and do play an essential role in our communities, not just because of the experience that they have gained through service, but because they actively provide their communities with invaluable attributes and skills that need to be passed on to others. Key stakeholders including the Government and charities should not treat them as helpless and lost, but as the most valuable and strong people whom we can have in our communities. They deserve to have our support whenever they need it.
Given that many of us were laying wreaths on Sunday to pay tribute to the fallen and to those who have served their country and defended its values, it is appropriate that we are having this debate, to which there have been many fine contributions from all parties around the chamber.
The cabinet secretary kicked off the debate by speaking about changing landscapes: I guess one changing landscape has been the political landscape in Scotland and how we support veterans in this country. We must not forget that, since devolution, and especially since the SNP Government’s election in 2007, we have had the first veterans minister, the veterans fund and, of course, Scotland’s first veterans commissioner in the form of Eric Fraser, who is in the gallery today. I join other members in paying tribute to his good work on the many issues that he has highlighted. I thank him for visiting Forres in my constituency a few months ago, where he met local people and discussed some of the issues that face veterans in the local community.
Another changing landscape is my constituency of Moray, which has played such a key role in defending the nation throughout the 20th and, now, 21st centuries. That has largely been through the presence of the RAF and the Royal Navy over those years. Even today there are many symbols of that presence to be seen in Moray, particularly from world war two. The beach defences, which are now under the care of the Forestry Commission Scotland, are still there and are a tourist attraction in their own right, and the many now-redundant airfields in the area can be seen by visitors and local people alike.
We still have RAF Lossiemouth, which is the only RAF base in Scotland today, and we have the Kinloss barracks, which was formerly the RAF Kinloss base. There is still a huge military presence in Moray; so many men and women are still playing their role defending the country and doing their good work. As a result of the presence over the past century or so, and today’s presence in those two establishments, many veterans live in Moray. As I have said before, if we were to measure the number of veterans as a percentage of the population in Moray, we must be at or near the top of the league for the whole of Scotland.
On the point that Richard Lochhead was making about the preponderance of veterans in his constituency, I add that they also tend to be extremely highly qualified veterans, which goes back to the point that Daniel Johnson made. Does Richard Lochhead think that it would be worth our while to talk to Moray Council to suggest that one way of encapsulating and keeping that huge reservoir of highly skilled individuals, some of whom have set up companies after leaving the RAF, would be for the council to incorporate in its growth deal a proposal to the Scottish and UK Governments that would maximise and retain those skills in the area?
The cabinet secretary has made a very good point that I will certainly take away with me. It is clearly the case that our veterans play a crucial in Moray’s social life and, particularly, in its economic life. Many people in Moray society are veterans, including many of my friends. I will always remember a few years ago having a pint with a friend in the local pub when it dawned on me that he had just returned from military action a week or two previously, and there we were—just talking about life in general. That brought home to me the various backgrounds that people in the local community have, particularly in terms of the number of veterans in Moray.
Many people who have left the military, particularly with the closure of RAF Kinloss, have started up their own businesses in the area and are now supplying jobs and economic growth. How can I participate in the debate without mentioning the Windswept Brewing Co Ltd? It produces fantastic craft beers and is doing extremely well at the moment. The cabinet secretary had the pleasure of trying one of the beers at a recent reception in Parliament. Al Read and Nigel Tiddy, who started that now-growing business, are former RAF pilots. Not surprisingly—although my favourite of the beers that they produce is their Blonde pale ale—they have beers named after the Tornado and the Typhoon, to keep in with the theme of the RAF in Lossiemouth and Moray.
The voluntary sector in the area is also very dependent on veterans. I visited a local Scouts Scotland camp at Spynie recently, where I was taught map reading by one of the volunteers—a former pilot or navigator in the RAF who was teaching the kids. The local voluntary sector is very well supported by veterans.
The transition to civilian life from military life that many members have mentioned is sometimes seen as a battle in its own right, and it presents challenges for many people. Maurice Corry led a very good debate a few months ago on a report by Combat Stress, which highlighted many of the issues. It suggested that many veterans in Scotland are living in areas of deprivation and that many of them have to deal with mental health issues. That is why the Scottish Government’s many initiatives that have been spoken about today play such a valuable role in supporting people through the transition, by helping them to settle back into civilian life and to deal with many of the challenges that they face.
I will make a couple more quick points before I finish. First, there are so many organisations out there helping—I think that Maurice Corry said that there are about 320 charities helping veterans in Scotland—that it is sometimes quite difficult to navigate through and understand what each one delivers, while raising awareness of them so that the many thousands of veterans in members’ communities can take advantage of the services that are on offer. Mike Rumbles raised an issue about the veterans first point service in Grampian. I have had constituents from Forres contact me to lament the decline of that particular service, but I take on board the cabinet secretary’s view of the situation. That reinforces the case for marshalling the services that are provided by the 320 charities, so that they are available and so that veterans are aware of them.
Given the number of veterans in my constituency and the rest of Scotland who have served in the RAF, next year’s centenary of the RAF provides an ideal opportunity for the Scottish Government, Parliament and others in society to celebrate the role of the RAF and the many veterans who have served in it throughout its history. That would be an ideal opportunity to revisit some of the issues that we have discussed today.
I start this closing speech by restating the point that I made in my opening speech about our continued support for our armed forces personnel and veterans. We owe a great debt of gratitude to members of the armed forces and veterans. As we approach 100 years since the end of the first world war, some of us will be thinking particularly about family members who served in it. In my family, that was my great-great-uncle. My family history is based around Kilsyth, Croy and the old village of Auchinstarry, so I would have expected him, along with a great many people from Bruce Crawford’s constituency, to deploy through that route from Stirling that Bruce Crawford mentioned. However, my gran gave me his soldier’s bible from the first world war, so I know that it was gifted to him as he deployed by the provost of Rutherglen. I am not sure how he ended up deploying from Rutherglen, as I would have expected him to deploy from Stirling with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Maybe I will get to the bottom of that element of my family history if anybody can help me out with that in the centenary year.
Those serving in our armed forces are asked to make massive personal sacrifices of their human rights and, ultimately, some give up their right to life in the service of our country. In return, it is only right that Governments and we as a nation value, respect and support our armed forces, and that culminates in the annual commemoration of armistice day, when we stop to remember those who have given their lives in action so that we can enjoy the freedom that we experience today.
Some members might know that I spent time in the Territorial Army. I have to say that I have not had the same experience in any other situation in life. I went through all the training that a reservist can do—although for a number of reasons I did not deploy—but even with the level of experience that I had, I still cannot begin to imagine the level of intensity and commitment to their fellow soldiers of those who have served on the front line.
As I said in my opening speech, when hearing from a young soldier who had served in Afghanistan, I could only listen and try to comprehend what it was like to come under fire and lose a fellow soldier from his battalion. To him, that loss was as great as losing a member of his family. I can also only imagine how isolated someone must feel if they are discharged from the armed forces into society, alone and perhaps with no family, after having had such a close bond with the comrades they fought with and possibly lost in combat.
It is therefore vital that advice and support services are in place to help former service personnel to adjust to living in mainstream society and that Governments continue to plan, co-ordinate and deliver support and advice services from the public, private and voluntary sectors for ex-service personnel and their families and children. I welcome the fact that most local authorities have appointed veterans champions and that they are starting to deliver real positive changes in those areas.
The cabinet secretary mentioned in his opening speech the issue of social housing and landlords. I often give the example of North Lanarkshire Council, which has amended its housing policy to recognise the priority needs of ex-service personnel who have just been discharged from duty, and their families. They are given extra points under its housing application system.
Together with the actions that are taken by our local authorities and the Government, we should continue to support the work that is done by many charities across Scotland. We have heard many local examples in the debate. Graeme Dey mentioned Combat Stress. I had the privilege of visiting Hollybush house in Ayrshire during the previous parliamentary session and speaking to some veterans there. The big issue that kept coming up was access to the concessionary travel card and work is under way on that. Disabled or injured veterans qualify for the national entitlement card, which is a positive step.
Erskine, which Tom Arthur mentioned, is the leading provider of care for veterans in the country. It provides a wide range of care from respite and short breaks, residential and nursing care, dementia care, and palliative care to physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and rehabilitation services. Erskine is working in partnership with the Royal British Legion to create 40 jobs in a new manufacturing centre. It was announced earlier today that a manufacturing centre staffed by Scottish veterans will open next year, offering a lifeline to many ex-service personnel. Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company will produce rail and road signs, recycle wooden products and provide print and mail services. That is another fantastic example of the work that is being done by charities, which we should do all we can to support.
We are committed to continuing to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that our veterans and their families receive the support that they need and deserve. In particular, we recognise that our service personnel often need help with their transition to civilian life, and particularly with finding housing and employment. We recognise that those who leave the service can bear physical and psychological scars for many years after their service ends.
This has been another good, consensual debate about the need to support our armed forces and veterans community in Scotland. I close by again acknowledging the debt of gratitude that Scotland owes to those who have served in our armed forces in defence of freedom. We will support the Government motion and the Conservative amendment at decision time, and we are willing, as always, to work on a cross-party basis to support veterans in Scotland.
I am pleased to close the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. For the avoidance of doubt—if there was any—I confirm my party’s support for the Government motion.
I thank Keith Brown for bringing the debate to the Parliament. As members pointed out throughout it, it is important that we pay tribute to our armed forces and veterans community and that we recognise the immense contribution that service personnel have made to Scottish society.
What is that contribution? Many people, including me, can only imagine. Daniel Johnson made an important point when he said that people like us have perhaps no idea of the stresses that service personnel have to deal with. I suspect that he is right and that the likes of Keith Brown, Maurice Corry, Edward Mountain and others in the chamber know much more than they let on. Bruce Crawford spoke very movingly about his grandfather, in a personal capacity that made his words very real.
That is why debates such as this one are so important. Above all, we must acknowledge that, as Edward Mountain said, service personnel are prepared—at our request—to put everything on the line: their health, their sanity, their families and their very future.
The motion also flags up the excellent work of the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, and his team. As my colleague Maurice Corry has rightly pointed out, all the commissioner’s reports recommend ambitious plans for the Scottish Government, which have allowed today’s debate to be productive and insightful.
Various areas have been explored, both by the commissioner in his reports and by members in this debate. A vital area for veterans and their families is housing. It must be a priority to ensure that appropriate housing is available to every veteran and their family. As Maurice Corry said about the commissioner’s housing report, veterans need better information from the Scottish Government and the MOD. In addition, local authorities must train their front-line staff to deliver that information in an appropriate and accessible way.
Daniel Johnson was right to call for better information. He was also right to speak about the families of those leaving the services and their situation. The transition from military to civilian life is one of the most crucial periods in determining what challenges and opportunities will present themselves to a veteran following their service.
The motion’s point about the Scottish Government continuing
“to work in partnership to ensure that the armed forces, veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to opportunities” was picked up well, especially by Bruce Crawford, who talked about the CAB in Stirling.
I also want to flag up Christine Grahame’s speech, in which she ran with Daniel Johnson’s point on spouses, partners and children. I agree that we must not forget those individuals.
I really enjoyed learning about the contribution of Women’s Enterprise Scotland in unlocking business potential. There is clearly something in its work that could be developed, so I am pleased that further funding has been secured. Like Christine Grahame, I certainly encourage other members to investigate www.startupwithwes.com after this debate.
And I do not intend to refuse it. I would be delighted to come along.
A number of members referred to employment and education, as did Mr Eric Fraser’s third report. In particular, Mr Fraser mentioned the need for better recognition of qualifications and skills. Members picked up that issue throughout the afternoon. The people who we are talking about have skill sets, disciplines and experiences that will be of huge value if we can only recognise and tap into them.
We look forward to supporting the Government’s motion. I also commend the Scottish Conservative amendment, which seeks explicitly to recognise the importance of the many veterans charities. Before I speak about that, I want to flag up the cabinet secretary’s point about transferable skills being a valuable resource. The Royal British Legion made the point—as did Mark Griffin—that there is a risk of a misconception that veterans are “mad, bad and sad”. The legion’s statistics suggest that that is not the case and that in many respects, veterans are no different from the population at large.
In his “Transition in Scotland” report, Mr Eric Fraser says:
“this may be the time for a more fundamental shift in the way we perceive and treat veterans in Scotland, reversing a narrative that tends to view them through the prism of need and obligation, and encouraging society to recognise them far more for their strengths and qualities.”
However, some veterans need more help. Maurice Corry pointed out that we have at least 320 armed forces charities in operation, providing a wide variety of services for the veterans community.
One charity, Wings for Warriors, works with wounded and medically discharged ex-service personnel to provide them with the skills to achieve an exciting, rewarding and sustainable future as professional pilots. Wings for Warriors has big plans to create the world’s first disabled veterans’ flying school, which I hope will be based on the eastern perimeter of Aberdeen airport. The charity has recently been awarded two small grants from Aberdeen City Council. Of course, that council remains the lowest funded in the country, so I hope that the cabinet secretary will familiarise himself with Wings for Warriors and respond positively to its approaches in the future.
An incredibly significant charity in the north-east is HorseBack UK. It was co-founded by ex-marine Jock Hutchison, who uses horsemanship to inspire recovery in the wounded, injured and sick of the military community, to enable them to regain self-esteem and to provide them with a sense of purpose and community.
Graeme Dey spoke movingly of his granddad who, even with a dram in him, found it difficult to talk of the horrors that he had witnessed. That is what HorseBack UK is mainly about. Learning to work with a horse is one of the most intricate and challenging things that anyone can do. The charity has empirical data that shows the mental and physical benefits that result.
In the summer, I went to see for myself how it works and the bond between horse and man. Going into the yard, Jock brought out a huge animal—it was the size of a horse.
Yes, that was the joke. It was a horse. I am glad to see that Christine Grahame is listening.
Demonstrating what not to do, Jock instructed the horse to move, but it refused. He then stood respectfully next to the beast. He spoke to it and I could see him gently gesticulating about what he would like the horse to do. Then he stood still next to the horse. The horse was still. He looked in its eye, smiled and raised his hand. And then—
Jock will tell members exactly what happened next when he comes to the reception for my members’ business debate on 7 February. [
.] I look forward to seeing everyone there.
Maurice Corry alluded to my member’s business debate in February, the motion for which said:
“almost two thirds of members of the forces’ community had personally come across people wearing medals or insignia awarded to someone else”.
He also noted that the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, which would have made the false wearing of medals with the intention to deceive a criminal offence throughout the United Kingdom, had fallen due to the general election. Given the fact that, in my debate, there was cross-party support for that bill, I ask that, in his closing speech, the cabinet secretary consider that matter and perhaps give a detailed response on the next stage and whether there is anything that we should be doing.
We have had a consensual and productive debate. It is encouraging to see such cross-party consensus on this significant subject. I urge us to send a signal from the chamber that we hold the work, commitment and devotion of veterans, their families and their children in the highest regard, and that we pledge to forever honour and support our servicemen and women, their families and our veterans.
I thank those members who have spoken for an interesting and stimulating debate on what, by consensus, seems to be regarded as an extremely important issue. It is obviously of close personal interest to many of us.
We have had a number of thoughtful contributions—and, of course, we have also had Mike Rumbles. I will try to respond to some of the contributions, including Mike Rumbles’s, because I want to come back on the issues that he raised.
Bruce Crawford mentioned a number of ex-service personnel who have ended up in prison. For the first time, I had the chance this year to go to the remembrance service at my local prison. If there is a service in their local prison and if they can go to it, I encourage members to do so as well as going to the other remembrance services that they attend. That is one way in which we can make contact, as I did, with ex-service personnel who are in prison. It is one way of joining in with the respect of that day and making some connections.
We all have a role to play—not least through remembrance, but more strategically as MSPs in our constituencies—in ensuring that people in the armed forces community who require assistance receive the best advice and services available. The fact that we show our awareness of, and empathy with, the roles that they play is important, so I am pleased about the armed forces parliamentary visit programme, which is in the early stages. I make it clear to members that there is a visit next week to my old unit, 45 Commando, where we will see all the things that marines get up to. I am trying to see whether I can clear my diary to go along. I am sure that anyone who does come along will have an enjoyable day at RM Condor in Arbroath.
Today was the first opportunity that I have had to update the Parliament on our work to take forward the veterans commissioner’s recommendations. In such debates, I have never declared an interest. Perhaps I should have done so but I should perhaps also have declared an interest when appointing Eric Fraser because, like me, he was in the Royal Navy—although I, of course, was in the best part of the Royal Navy, having been in the Royal Marines.
I agree with members who pointed out the quality of Eric Fraser’s work, which has been tremendously innovative. We have been very lucky to have Eric Fraser as our first veterans commissioner. The best testament to Eric’s work will be to maintain momentum and transparency on the important issues that he has raised, and I commit to looking for time for an annual debate like this.
The Scottish Government and our partners have taken forward a wide portfolio of work aimed at better supporting our armed services community. However, to go back to a point made by a number of members, there is great deal more that we can do.
There were some interesting contributions to the debate. Liam Kerr referred to three veterans—Maurice Corry, Edward Mountain and me—and talked about “mad, bad and sad”. I do not know which of us is which, but I am grateful to Liam Kerr for pointing that out.
Bruce Crawford and others recollected family members, some of whom go back into the mists of time, to be honest. It is always very welcome to hear such recollections—as Daniel Johnson reminded us, it helps us to maintain an important connection.
In opening and closing for Labour, Mark Griffin gave two very good speeches, particularly when he talked about remembering the sacrifice given by many veterans.
There were contributions from Tom Arthur and Christine Grahame. Christine talked about Women’s Enterprise Scotland and I think that she will agree with me about the change in women who are involved in the organisation. Women can be isolated and sometimes alienated, and can feel diminished if their main role is to support somebody else. WES has had an astonishing effect on the women I met, who are, by and large, supporting male partners in the armed forces.
Christine Grahame’s point about Women’s Enterprise Scotland was very interesting. There is also Recruit for Spouses. I wonder whether there might be some sort of get-together of those two organisations, which are trying to achieve the same aims. Talented partners and wives are coming up to Scotland, particularly to Faslane. The other day, I attended the opening of the fantastic Scottish submarine centre. There were lots of people there who could offer skills, and we have already taken one up who did the final design of the centre’s digital motifs and so on. I commend that.
I would be happy to look into that. As the member says, there is symmetry between Recruit for Spouses and Women’s Enterprise Scotland. There are also the two third sector organisations mentioned by Liam Kerr. I had a very good visit to
HorseBack UK, which the Scottish Government is supporting to the tune of £7,500. I think that, as well as being an ex-Royal Marine, J ock Hutchison is from Dollar, where I come from.
I took one positive thing—if it was possible to do so—from Mike Rumbles’s contribution, which belonged to a different debate entirely. He mentioned that we are not here just to slap each other on the back and be consensual; we should be willing to embrace controversy and difficult issues, because that is the only way that we can continually improve services.
I do not want to be controversial for the sake of it but, as members have talked about remembrance, I should mention that the badge that I am wearing commemorates the first world war. It is important to remember that it is almost the 100th anniversary of armistice day.
We can think about what the people in that conflict went through, by and large in soaked, freezing and rat-infested trenches, in which they often walked on the remains of their colleagues and were constantly bombarded. Members talked about PTSD, which used to be called shellshock. I can only imagine somebody who experienced the trenches of the first world war being absolutely appalled by the debate about what kind of jacket somebody wore to a remembrance service at the weekend. That was a bizarre discussion to have and was not at all respectful of the people who went through that experience.
Generally, the contributions were very positive. For our part, the Government is very willing to listen to Eric Fraser, and to members, about where we might be able to improve things.
We have taken forward a number of issues. As Daniel Johnson said, whether we are talking about housing, health or education, plans for people leaving the armed forces should start being made on the day that they join. I have made that point repeatedly to the UK Government. The MoD could do something at the very start. People could immediately subscribe to get housing points from the day that they join the armed forces. The MoD could get health records right away; it could oblige people to tell it which general practitioner they will go to when they leave the armed forces. There is a lot that we can do if we get in at that stage. We have tried to convince the UK Government of that and we will continue to do so.
There are three pillars. Getting a job is extremely important, as others have said, but veterans must also be able to rely on having a decent house and having access to the right health services. Even if we just wanted to be selfish about it, we know that if we can get those three things right we will save the state an awful lot of money. More important, however, we know that by doing so we will provide a proper future for our veterans.
I said that we would introduce guidance and promote best practice on housing—we have an obligation there, too. We will continue to work through the Scottish service children strategic working group to meet the educational needs of service children in Scotland.
I think that Christine Grahame mentioned the peripatetic nature of the armed forces. Continually moving units around the country cannot be good for the children—one unit is about to go through its fourth education system. In future moves and revisions of the defence configuration in the UK, let us think about the members of the armed forces who have families and children. I repeat the point that I made earlier about how expensive it can be when we get it wrong. If we want to avoid that expense and provide the best possible experience for children in the armed forces, we should take them into account when we move people around the chessboard.
We will also take forward our engagement on employability through the veterans employability strategic working group. I say in response to the point that Maurice Corry made about the group that, having had a long chat with Mark Bibbey, I am really impressed—to an extent that I did not expect to be—by the work that is being done on that. I suggest that Maurice Corry discusses that further with Mark Bibbey if he gets the chance and if he has not done so already, as that will repay him.
Some really important issues are coming out of that, such as how best to get veterans not just into work but into the type of work that they deserve to get into, given their qualifications, experience and abilities. The group will continue to look at the commissioner’s recommendations as its work progresses, including considering work placements, accreditation and mapping military skills in the civilian workplace. It has also set out a plan for additional qualitative research to identify barriers. That will help shape thinking on the feasibility of a pilot approach.
I turn to the point that was made about the articulation of skills, experience and qualifications gained during service in the armed forces, on which we have done some work through Skills Development Scotland. I was in Canada recently where I spoke to its deputy minister for veterans. Canada seems to take a much more comprehensive approach to that, which covers both sides of the equation—the armed forces and veterans. We can learn a lot from that, which will help us make things as easy as possible.
I agree with the fundamental point that some of the skills that our veterans have are so valuable—especially given what is happening now with Brexit and pressure on the labour market—that we have to ensure that we make the most of them. We have to let the veterans themselves know that they have those abilities and that what they did in the armed forces is really important to civilian employers.
Many members concentrated quite rightly on the protections afforded to us by those who have served, given how they have defended our freedom and way of life. It is right that we continue to make Scotland a society that recognises the full value of our armed forces community and that we aspire to make Scotland the destination of choice for personnel leaving the armed forces, wherever they are in the UK or elsewhere. It is important that we make Scotland the place where they want to spend the rest of their lives after having served.