The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-09384, in the name of Liam Kerr, on increasing awareness of the work of veterans charities in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises the important work undertaken by veteran charities and organisations in Scotland; highlights the difficulty of veterans seeking help for physical or mental health problems, especially within the armed forces community where it believes the culture can make seeking help appear difficult; notes the work of the Aberdeenshire-based military charity, HorseBack UK; understands that, for just under 10 years, HorseBack UK has helped injured soldiers and veterans using horsemanship skills, and continues to do so today; acknowledges that the purpose behind the charity is to inspire recovery, regain self-esteem and provide a sense of purpose and community to the wounded, injured and sick within the military community; notes that, for the last four years, the charity has taken its knowledge gained from working with veterans to other communities, including activities involving sport and disengaged young people, in order to enable those who have been injured mentally or physically to then help others, after clinical care, and further notes that the charity has developed mentoring programmes to create a sense of community and purpose for those hurt and who now have a real desire to change public perception towards mental health and disability.
I am very proud to bring forward this members’ business debate today, and I thank all those from across the chamber who added their support to the motion, allowing us to debate and highlight an extremely important issue and the solutions that are offered by various charities. I welcome all in the public gallery, particularly those from HorseBack UK, and thank them for coming to listen to what I am certain will be an informative and productive debate.
Before we get to the challenges and solutions, tonight’s debate gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to our armed forces and veterans community and to recognise the immense contribution that service personnel have made to Scottish society whether during or after service.
My motion seeks to highlight the considerable challenges that are faced by veterans who may require help for physical and/or mental health problems. That help is important. A YouGov survey for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help—SSAFA Forces Help—that was conducted in October 2017 shows the extent of the problems that veterans face: 33 per cent of former services personnel feel isolated or lonely due to mental or physical health issues, 34 per cent feel overwhelmed by negative feelings and 27 per cent admit to having suicidal thoughts after finishing their military service. I also understand that only 60 per cent of working-age veterans are in work compared with 73 per cent of the United Kingdom population.
Of course, that is not to say that all veterans will experience those problems, but we must acknowledge the statistics and ensure that our veterans who require assistance receive the very best advice and support as they readjust. That is where the vital work undertaken by veterans charities and organisations in Scotland comes in, and I take this opportunity to highlight some of the outstanding work that they do.
About 320 armed forces charities operate in Scotland, providing a wide variety of services including but not limited to health and wellbeing services and activities, education, employment and careers services, advice and advocacy services and housing provision.
The scale and nature of the charities differ massively. There are the large nationally recognised organisations, such as Poppyscotland and the Royal British Legion Scotland. Poppyscotland will no doubt want me to flag that it has launched its largest-ever campaign outside the annual poppy appeal to inspire groups, schools, businesses, clubs and organisations around the country each to raise £1,918—or more—this year.
Smaller—but no less valuable—organisations also play a vital role in helping with the complex transition back on to civvy street. In the words of Wings for Warriors, which works with wounded and medically discharged ex-service personnel to provide them with the skills to be professional pilots, they help to ensure that veterans return to their communities as professionals
“to look up to instead of look after.”
Another of the smaller organisations—I am very pleased to have it represented here today—is HorseBack UK. Co-founded by ex-Royal Marine Jock Hutchison, whose work was recently highlighted by the Prime Minister no less, HorseBack UK
“uses horsemanship to inspire recovery, regain self-esteem and provide a sense of purpose and community to the wounded, injured and sick of the military community”.
Learning to work with a horse is one of the most intricate and challenging things that anyone can do, and the courses and voluntary programmes at HorseBack UK give participants a place where they can learn new skills while overcoming any physical limitations and, by taking a holistic approach, aid mental and social recovery.
The impact that the charity has had on the lives of those that it has supported has been extraordinary. Talking of his own experience, a former Royal Marines corporal said that the charity had started
“an important new chapter in his life” and had shown him that there was “still hope”. The spouse of another stated:
“The effects have lasted longer than I expected too, we had a few moments before he left when he would normally have gone into the darkness but much to my surprise and delight he was very chilled and relaxed.”
Members will be able to hear more testimonials at the reception that I am holding right after the debate in the Burns room, committee room 1.
Debates such as this one are so important because they give us the opportunity to highlight not only those organisations that are going above and beyond but what is out there. During the veterans and armed forces community debate in November 2017, Richard Lochhead rightly highlighted the difficulties that some armed forces personnel may have in understanding what each of the organisations delivers. To that end, I will highlight and welcome the work of veterans gateway.
Veterans gateway, many of whose team are veterans themselves, is the first point of contact to put veterans and their families in touch with the organisations that are best placed to help with the information, advice and support that they need—from healthcare and housing to employability, finances, personal relationships and more.
Additionally, as representatives, we have an important part to play.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government and the UK Government are proactively seeking to address the issue. In particular, I welcome the UK Government’s plan to introduce different driving licences for veterans. The scheme, which could be implemented by the early 2020s, will provide the first universally recognised identification for veterans in the UK. It will create a new proof of service for veterans, thereby ensuring that they will have access to healthcare benefits, among other things. That is important, because those who serve our country deserve recognition, and the new scheme should help.
On that note, I would like to highlight the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland’s count them in campaign. Despite the fact that it is estimated that one in 10 of the UK population are members of the armed forces community, there is limited information about where they are or what their needs might be. By adding new questions to the 2021 census, we should be able to improve our understanding of that unique community and ensure that the needs of our forces personnel and veterans and their families are fully met.
I urge the Scottish Government to continue to look at ways in which we can highlight and support veterans charities and groups, particularly smaller ones such as HorseBack UK.
Will he join me in encouraging our parliamentary colleagues to find out about and make connections with the armed services advice project—a project by Poppyscotland and Citizens Advice Scotland to signpost veterans to the right people—which was piloted in Hamilton and rolled out to the rest of Scotland?
Christina McKelvie makes an important point, and the answer is yes.
Without organisations such as HorseBack UK, the cost and impact on our local services and local authorities would be great, and the negative impact on veterans would be even greater. The positives that accrue to society, individuals and the economy as a result of that work are considerable.
I thank the members who are in the chamber for coming together to discuss this important matter, and I hope that some of them will be able to join me at the event that I am sponsoring with HorseBack UK in the Burns room after the debate.
I thank Liam Kerr for lodging his important motion to highlight the work that veterans organisations do.
Only yesterday, we celebrated 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave many women the right to vote for the first time. According to a tweet by Poppyscotland yesterday, one of the main reasons that that was made possible, and was supported by the public and some of the establishment, was the contribution that women made to society during the first world war.
The first world war, the 100-year anniversary of which we will commemorate in November this year, changed the UK for ever, and the effect that it had on those who served and their families is immeasurable. More than 6 million men served in the war; 750,000 of them never returned home, including my great-grandmother’s brother, who died at the battle of the Somme; 1.75 million suffered some kind of disability; and millions more could not find work on their return from the front.
To care for those who had suffered, whether through their own service or through that of a family member, the British Legion, as it was then known, was formed. To this day, Scotland still has a large and vibrant armed forces community, which includes reservists, regular personnel and their families. Estimates show that the community encompasses more than half a million people. In a previous members’ business debate, I spoke about the many veterans who have been supported and cared for at Erskine Hospital, and the dedication of the staff who have worked there for the past 101 years.
The impact and effect that war continues to have on our forces and their families is substantial, so the support that our veterans charities and organisations provide is as crucial today as it ever was. One of my Blantyre constituents, David, has had support from the Royal British Legion and the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association.
David served in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and was stationed in Germany prior to the first Gulf war. In late 1990, he received multiple injections, all at the same time, in preparation for possible deployment to the Gulf. As it turned out, he was not deployed there, but he has suffered from ill health ever since. He left the Army in May 1992, and he suffers from a combination of health issues, including impaired mobility, that he believes are directly attributable to those injections.
The problem is that David and many other veterans have never found out the exact cocktail of vaccines that they were given. The Ministry of Defence says that David’s medical records are missing, and the Army initially denied that any such injections took place. However, certain declassified documents indicate that the vaccines may have contained strains of anthrax and botulism. The MOD’s lack of transparency on that issue inhibits civilian doctors from giving an accurate diagnosis and treatment for the health issues that such veterans continue to experience. More than anything, David simply wants an acknowledgement that the injections took place and information on what he was injected with, because he believes that that will inform his on-going treatment.
The National Gulf Veterans and Families Association has provided David with advice and support, but it is limited in what it can do in this instance. It would be helpful to it and to the good work that it continues to do for David and hundreds of other veterans in Scotland if the MOD were less retentive of medical information that it holds. That would be helpful in improving veterans’ quality of life.
From the first world war through to the Gulf war and beyond, successive Governments have let down too many of our veterans and their families. Being thrust into their new civilian life or a family being left to deal with the loss of a loved one is often too difficult for someone to deal with alone. We can dispute the merits of going to a particular war, whether troops should be deployed and who our allies should be, but we cannot dispute that our veterans charities and organisations are very often left covering gaps in support that the Government should be offering.
We all owe a great debt to our armed forces and their families, who have sacrificed much for us, and to the veterans charities and organisations that endeavour to support them. However, the UK Government must step up and protect our men and women who go to war to protect us.
I, too, thank
Liam Kerr for bringing the motion to Parliament and allowing us to debate this important subject.
At the outset, I declare that I am officially a veteran, although I do not consider that to be an entirely appropriate label, because the word “veteran” comes from a Latin word that means “old”, and I do not consider that I am old. I will park that comment, because my children continually tell me that I am old. I want to look at what veterans charities—in particular, HorseBack UK—achieve.
I spent two years of my career in the services undertaking mounted ceremonial duties in London. I have to confess that, when I was posted to London to do that, I was not keen—in fact, I was sent to Knightsbridge kicking and screaming. When I started, I subscribed to the old adage that horses bite at one end and kick at the other. At that stage, I would have added that the bit in the middle tried very hard to ensure that a person landed in the line of fire of the kicking bit or the biting bit.
However, 24 weeks of riding school taught me different. I joined a ride of young soldiers, most of whom had never touched a horse, let alone ridden one. Most lacked confidence in their abilities and questioned the wisdom of having joined a regiment that had to ride horses. Within a week of finishing our course, we all rode in the Queen’s birthday parade, which was quite an achievement for young soldiers. During those 24 weeks, we all learned a lot about horses. I saw young soldiers maturing and gaining confidence in their ability that they never had before. Those who did particularly well were those who came to trust their horses and build empathy with them: they worked together and trusted each other.
I understand that HorseBack UK is about building confidence and self-esteem, and a bond or reliance that is not questioned, but is just accepted. Let me be clear: horses are not stupid, but they look to their human counterparts to take the lead. They do not judge their human counterparts on their physical stature; rather, they judge them on how they treat the horse. For servicemen, and for adults and children who lack confidence, horses provide a vehicle through which to rebuild faith in their inner being.
Horses are not solitary animals, and neither are humans: both need a community. I recognise the importance of there being a veterans community. I served in much more peaceful times than many younger recently discharged veterans served in, but I suspect that many soldiers have seen things that they would rather not have seen. Sometimes being with friends and colleagues who do not need to ask any questions, in unspoken understanding of what has gone on before, is a very important kind of therapy.
There are many veterans charities: I wish them all well. I believe that the independent charities can do much more than Government charities, which are often bound by regulations. The independence of veterans charities gives them the ability to invest as they see fit, and makes them the envy of the world. We all need to remember that to keep their independence they need our help, which we should give them freely.
I thank Liam Kerr for bringing the debate to the chamber, and for highlighting the important work that is done by HorseBack UK and veterans charities throughout Scotland. As members from across the chamber have done, I pay tribute to the work of those charities and thank them for all that they do.
As members know, the majority of my involvement with the armed forces stems from HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane being in my constituency. A significant number of serving men and women, and veterans, live in my constituency with their families, and I know how incredibly important it is for them to be supported throughout their careers and when they retire.
As Liam Kerr’s motion highlights, there is a stigma surrounding
“seeking help for physical or mental health problems” in the veterans community. The support of charities such as the ones that I will mention allows veterans to live full and independent lives after leaving the forces.
I will start by talking about a charity that we all know well—SSAFA, which is the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association. It aims to ensure that the needs of our armed forces and veterans are met, and that they have independence and dignity after they leave the services. It provides a range of valuable support for people’s physical needs and mental wellbeing, which is hugely practical support for veterans and their families.
SSAFA works throughout the UK; I am blessed to have it operating in my area. At this point, I want to give a huge shout out to Mary Burch, who is the divisional secretary of my local SSAFA. Aside from being enormously helpful and sympathetic, she is tireless in her fundraising and in support of organisations including Erskine Care Homes and the Skylark IX Recovery Trust.
I have referred constituents to SSAFA when they have been struggling to get help elsewhere. Let me tell members about a veteran’s widow who was struggling to get in and out of the bath and so needed adaptations to her bathroom. The council was unable—and, indeed, unwilling—to help, but SSAFA stepped in. It funded adaptations to her bathroom that included a shower being fitted. That let her maintain her independence and continue to live in her own home. That is a real example of the service that charities such as SSAFA provide for armed forces families. That practical lifelong support, not only for veterans but for their families, is so helpful.
Another prominent veterans charity in my constituency is the Armed Forces Veterans Association Dumbarton. Its office is based, unusually, at Dumbarton Central train station. Given the infrequency of the trains, people can spend some very useful time in there, because it has developed a museum of military artefacts as well. I encourage colleagues to visit. The charity provides information and advice for military veterans, and a counselling service is also available. It is open every weekday for people just to pop in and have a chat and cup of tea, and it is supported by volunteers who can continue to be part of the forces community after they finish their service. I have first-hand experience of just how important that service is in helping veterans, who are perhaps dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, to access health and housing provision, and I have worked with it to help veterans in very practical ways.
The work that is done by veterans charities in my constituency and across the UK is invaluable. Veterans who have served their country deserve our thanks, recognition and support, but there is still more to be done. We must ensure that veterans get access to the right support at the right time. I encourage all members in the chamber to find out about veterans charities in their local area, because as MSPs we can play an important role in raising awareness of veterans charities in our own patches and across Scotland, and in ensuring that everyone receives the support that they need and deserve.
As other members have done, I thank Liam Kerr for securing tonight’s debate. Before I go any further, I should say that I am a veteran, having served some 15 years in the Army at home and abroad, and another 17 years with reserve liability. I left the Army in 1994, before “veteran” became the accepted terminology for former services personnel, so I have the same feelings as Edward Mountain about the word “veteran”.
It is really important to increase awareness of the work of the many veterans charities around Scotland. They do a really good job. In a moment, I will highlight the work of Age Scotland’s veterans project—in particular, in the north-east.
Before that, I must say how disappointed I am at the withdrawal of the veterans first point service in Grampian, which occurred last year. The service closed simply because, even with the Scottish Government offering to meet 50 per cent of the funding, Grampian NHS could not find the cash to enable the specialist service to continue. I have repeatedly raised the fact that Grampian NHS has been consistently underfunded for many years—by £165 million over the past nine years. The board believed that it had no option but to decline funding that important veterans service.
However, I do not want to focus on the negative; I want to be positive about the issue tonight, and I know that Age Scotland has stepped into the breach with help. The organisation is active in the north-east and has a community development officer there, and its aim is to ensure that veterans aged over 65 get the help that they need, when they need it.
I emphasise that no matter how long ago an individual served their country or for how long they served, they can get help and advice from the Age Scotland veterans project. Its helpline is now a gateway to a range of veterans support organisations and projects and, if Age Scotland cannot help an individual or family, it makes sure that someone else helps.
Time is short this evening, especially after the later decision time, so I end by congratulating Liam Kerr on securing the debate, because such debates are important. I hope that the Age Scotland veterans project continues to be a success, especially for the veterans in my patch in the north-east who need the help and advice that the project provides.
I thank Liam Kerr for lodging his motion, and for its particular focus on HorseBack UK, which is a charity that undertakes excellent work in supporting our service personnel and veterans. I know something of the organisation, certainly with regard to its fundraising aspect, even though it is not based in my constituency.
Not long after being elected to Holyrood, I was asked to officiate at a cycle ride around Arbroath that was being held to raise funds for HorseBack UK. There, for the first time, I met Jock Hutchison, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the charity. Jock tends to leave a bit of an impression on folk when they meet him, but my abiding memory of that day was not of Jock with his cowboy hat and larger-than-life persona. Instead, it was of chatting to some of the severely wounded veterans who had benefited from the charity’s work. It was a genuinely heartwarming experience.
The invitation to welcome the cyclists across the finishing line came from Ian Wren, who was a volunteer fundraiser for HorseBack UK at the time. Ian has since taken retirement from his previous work and assumed the role of the charity’s fundraising manager. He is a constituent of mine and, along with his wife Bev, he is a well-kent face at community events, where he flies the flag for the charity. He is something of a force of nature. Ian is one of my Facebook friends, and it is fair to say that he posts as regularly about his fundraising activity as Murdo Fraser takes to Twitter on the wind-up. Just as charities and causes need something that sets them apart from the crowd to be successful, they need committed fundraisers such as Ian, and I pay tribute to him for all that he does on behalf of HorseBack UK.
There is another Angus South connection with Horseback UK. Jock Hutchison previously served at RM Condor in Arbroath, which is a base that is close to the cabinet secretary’s heart. The idea for the charity came about in 2008, which was a particularly traumatic year for members of the 45 Commando unit. In their recently completed tour of Afghanistan, they had lost nine of their own in combat and a further 16 members had suffered life-changing injuries. Jock and Emma Hutchison offered the farm at Aboyne as a place where the injured marines could visit for a break away from clinical recovery and, over the following 12 months, several groups took advantage of their hospitality.
HorseBack UK’s work has spread much further in the north-east of Scotland, and, as a constituency MSP for RM Condor, I highlight the support that the organisation has provided to those who have served with 45 Commando.
Lance Corporal Jason Hare, who is now the organisation’s operations manager, was previously based in Arbroath. He served for 14 years, during which he undertook three tours of Afghanistan. In 2008, while on patrol in Helmand, he was severely injured after triggering a landmine. Following extended treatment, he returned to his unit to continue his rehab and transition to civvy life. While he was there in 2010, he became aware of HorseBack UK and joined colleagues on a visit. He believes that the activities that it gives to participants provide not only an insight into horsemanship and rural activity, but potential careers, as veterans brace themselves for transition to civvy life. He describes the organisation as giving him
“a renewed spark and enthusiasm for life”.
Another RM Condor beneficiary of HorseBack UK is Corporal Matthew Turnbull, who says that the charity shows that there is “still hope in life”. He notes that the charity’s work is valued not just by him but by his family—that is an aspect of HorseBack UK’s impact that we should not forget. As the recovery of injured personnel progresses, the stress and emotional toll that is carried by the wider family can ease.
There can be no praise high enough for the work that the charity does and the positive benefit that it brings to the lives of injured service personnel. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to join others tonight to recognise that work.
I thank Liam Kerr for securing this important debate; I always welcome the opportunity to speak on veterans’ issues in the Parliament.
I also thank HorseBack UK for its work with our wonderful veterans. Liam Kerr gave a great description of its work and the benefits that it brings to veterans by building up their confidence and self-belief.
I draw attention to what Claire Haughey said in relation to our service personnel who were involved in Gulf war 1 and their vaccinations. I am very interested in that issue, which is on my mind. We are hearing more about it and I fully support the points that she made. I would like to discuss with her, in my role as chairman of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community, how we might take the issue forward. I have no doubt that the minister will address the issue later. It is a big problem and we need to get to the bottom of it.
As Liam Kerr’s motion notes, veterans’ charities are important and it can be a difficult area to work in. He pointed out that there are at least 320 groups in Scotland that deal with veterans. Some of the groups deal with more than 200 veteran cases a month, in lieu of support from local authorities. I have had conversations with several of the charities, and they tell me that they struggle with finance from month to month to provide that support. It is important that we support them, because they provide a high level of individualised care that could not be replicated by the public sector. They deliver care that is desperately needed by our veterans.
On 16 November last year, I called on the Scottish Government to see what could be done to provide financial support to the charities that deal with those costs. I hope that the cabinet secretary will be able to update the chamber on what progress has been made with regard to that request.
I join colleagues in thanking Liam Kerr for securing this debate. I recognise and pay tribute to the tremendous contribution that our forces community has made, in service and as veterans.
I confess that I first came across HorseBack UK in our debate in November when it was mentioned by Liam Kerr. He began to tell us an anecdote and kept us in suspense, in which I think we are still waiting. I am unfortunately not able to make it along to the reception this evening. I wish the organisation all the best for it.
I was struck by the comments made by Edward Mountain, who spoke of horsecraft and of the veterans who engaged with horses being able to
“rebuild a faith in their inner being”.
That is a very powerful way to describe it. A colleague mentioned that veterans’ work with the horses mean that they return to their communities as
“professionals to look up to, not to look after”.
Reading and learning about the work of Horseback UK shows that the work is incredibly empowering.
One aspect of its work that struck me is that veterans who come along to use the service can end up working with HorseBack UK. It is tremendous to see the empowering nature of the opportunities that it provides.
Particularly telling are the services that HorseBack UK is now providing to the wider community. Its website describes services for children who are, perhaps, socially or academically marginalised. That speaks to the tremendous contribution that our veterans and the forces community make more widely across Scotland.
In Renfrewshire, we have Erskine, which has been mentioned already, and the newly opened Scottish War Blinded Hawkhead centre. Erskine provides a tremendous future for people right across the west of Scotland and it has fantastic links with the local community. As someone who was musically engaged throughout high school, I had the opportunity every Christmas to go out and perform for the veterans at Erskine. That was a great honour and privilege that many students sought. It speaks to the great partnership between veterans’ charities and the wider communities in the areas that they serve.
I commend Erskine for its recently published strategy, which, while recognising some of the challenges that Erskine faces, is very ambitious in adapting to the needs and demands of the veterans community.
I also want to recognise the Scottish War Blinded Hawkhead centre in my colleague George Adam’s constituency of Paisley. It is a fantastic centre that provides financial support and advice on the use of specialist equipment, and it helps people to increase their confidence in independent living. It now has more than 30 staff, some of whom are from my constituency of Renfrewshire South. Having spoken with them, I know how much they value the opportunity to work there. I recognise the tremendous work that goes on at the Hawkhead centre.
I thank Liam Kerr for bringing this important debate to the chamber. It is great to be debating the issue in February, and I hope to have more such opportunities—not just around remembrance Sunday—to recognise the fantastic contribution that our veterans charities and communities make to Scotland.
I thank Liam Kerr for bringing this worthwhile and interesting debate to the chamber. The Scottish Government and I are always keen to increase awareness of and to champion the valuable work that veterans charities do throughout Scotland. Liam Kerr’s efforts are doing precisely that, as is the reception that will take place immediately after this debate, which I mention again for advertising purposes.
The third sector in Scotland is strong and dynamic, and it plays a crucial role in the wellbeing of our communities. We are fortunate to have a good mix of people and organisations within the veterans community who are making a real difference. I am told by people who are active outwith Scotland that we have the real advantage of scale. The sector is close-knit, as was noted by the Forces in Mind Trust in its report “Armed Forces Charities in Scotland”, which was published in 2016. I continue to be grateful to all the charities, a number of which have been mentioned. Veterans Scotland, Poppyscotland, Legion Scotland, Erskine, Scottish Veterans Residences—one of whose properties is just across the road from the Parliament—Combat Stress and many others work hard to bring everyone together and make sure that there is support for those who need it most.
I will pick up on one or two of the points that members have made. Graeme Dey talked about the impact of the offer that HorseBack UK made to the Marines who had come back from Afghanistan with what are chillingly called life-changing injuries. I have visited HorseBack UK, and it is sometimes able to reach out to veterans in a way that other charities or organisations have not been able to do. When one visits HorseBack UK, it is odd or surprising, in a way, to see how dealing with a horse and the relationship that is established can change people. It is extraordinary, and I confess that I was not aware of it before I visited HorseBack UK.
Jackie Baillie talked about the Dumbarton train station veterans centre, which I have visited. I can confirm that the train service was excellent on that day, as were the coffee and the reception that I received from the veterans who were there.
Clare Haughey made a very important substantive point, which I am glad that Maurice Corry picked up on as well. The issue of the cocktail of drugs that was given to service personnel who were going to Iraq and Afghanistan is important in its own right, but I am talking about Clare Haughey’s point about the MOD being very retentive of health records. I have made that point repeatedly to UK ministers. If they could facilitate the passing on of the complete health records from a person’s service period to their general practitioner or the health service, that would make a lot of difference for exactly the reasons that Clare Haughey mentioned. Physicians could take a much more balanced, rounded and informed approach to a person’s care if they were aware of the person’s medical history from their time in service.
With regard to medical records and Clare Haughey’s point that veterans need that support, will the cabinet secretary join me—he will not be surprised that I am raising the issue in this debate—in saying that, once and for all, the UK Government should take responsibility for the men who were used in nuclear testing sites on Christmas Island and give them their medical records and their compensation?
The member has raised the point before and has met those veterans, as I have done. I think that the same point applies. Anybody who has served in the forces surely has a right to have their medical records made available to them, as civilians do.
Much more important, the people who are looking after them medically should also have access to those records. That is a relatively non-contentious point, and progress has been made south of the border. When I raised the matter with a UK minister, however, the latest excuse that I got was to do with there being different computer systems in Scotland. That is not sufficient reason for us not to be moving much more quickly on the issue.
As Christina McKelvie has intervened, I will mention her earlier intervention on the armed services advice project—ASAP. It is a tremendous charity but one with a very different impact from, for example, HorseBack UK. Veterans who have accessed a series of benefits that they are perfectly entitled to but were not aware of have seen their situations transformed by the advice that ASAP gave them. I am lucky to have the benefit of having just outside my constituency an ASAP office that is co-located with Citizens Advice Scotland, in which one particular individual has changed the lives of many veterans. It is extremely important that we mention such charities.
Mike Rumbles made a point about the health service that he has raised before. As I pointed out in a recent meeting with Maurice Corry, the Scottish Government gets not one single penny to fund anything that we do for veterans in Scotland. We do not receive anything for that through the block grant. We want to spend money on veterans because we think it is important that we do so. Whether it is the millions of pounds that have gone to Combat Stress and to providing housing—not least at Cranhill in Glasgow—or the money that has gone to the Scottish veterans fund, which I will mention shortly, we have spent that money because we think that veterans are a priority. I think that the UK Government’s role in relation not just to Scotland but to Wales and Northern Ireland is to acknowledge that it took on those people in the first place and has an enduring responsibility for them, which should be recognised in the block grant. We could do much more if that was possible.
I hope the cabinet secretary recognises that I made the point that the Scottish Government offered a 50 per cent cash payment to Grampian NHS Board and the health board did not take it up. I do not doubt the cabinet secretary’s personal commitment to veterans in Scotland, and I want to make it clear that I acknowledged that.
I acknowledge that.
However, I am trying to make the point that, when it comes to things that we want to do specifically for veterans—veterans first point had an element of that, not least in the peer-to-peer support that it made available beyond the health services—we have to find the money for it in other budgets such as the education budget. I think that there is a case to be made for saying that the UK Government has a responsibility when service has been rendered.
HorseBack UK has been mentioned. I had the privilege of visiting it in 2012 to see the work that it does. After suffering traumatic injuries, service personnel and veterans can feel isolated and their confidence can be affected. HorseBack UK has helped more than 1,000 individuals over the past decade. It recognises that recovery is often more than a clinical process and that people need help in regaining their self-belief after injury. We heard from Edward Mountain that horses can provide a route back to increased self-belief. HorseBack UK also empowers the injured to help others by creating purpose and a community for recovery.
For our part, the Scottish Government has been able to directly support Horseback UK and other charities and organisations that help veterans and their families through the Scottish veterans fund. Through that fund, we have invested in more than 140 projects in areas including housing, healthcare and other services. Since its creation in 2008, over £1 million has been awarded through the fund to organisations that support the veterans community and ex-services charities.
One of the reasons why we created the veterans fund was the fact that a report from the House of Commons Health Committee in 2007 was pretty damning of the provision for veterans in Scotland, not least through the health service. That is one reason why we have sought to improve matters there.
The fund’s panel met last week to review the applications that have been made to the fund in the 2018 round of applications, and the funding that will be awarded will be announced in the coming weeks. Unlike in previous years—apart from last year—I am no longer the person who is responsible for saying what funds should benefit from that. That is now done by the Veterans Commissioner and others.
More broadly, the Scottish Government continues to be committed to ensuring that all armed forces personnel and veterans living in Scotland have access to the best possible care and support, including safe, effective and patient-centred healthcare.
We are also fortunate to have outstanding public and third sector organisations that help to keep our veterans and—as Jackie Baillie rightly mentioned—their families in good health. For example, our network of champions for armed forces personnel and veterans supports those people and their families to get access to high-quality services and treatment when they are required. I make the point unashamedly that the system is arguably more effective here in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. That view has been fed back to me by organisations that work across the UK. Although they—and I—acknowledge that there is always more that we can do, they are very complimentary about what we are doing.
The Scottish Veterans Commissioner is also examining the issue of veterans’ health and wellbeing. His interim report, “Veterans’ health and wellbeing in Scotland—are we getting it right?” was published last year and positively concluded that veterans are not experiencing disadvantage in health and social care provision in Scotland. That might seem odd language to use, but there is a consensus in the veterans community that, rather than provide an advantage, Governments and other agencies should ensure that there is no disadvantage. We ensure that there is an advantage in some circumstances, not least in relation to prosthetics and other extremely expensive items, which I think is right, but, by and large, we aim to ensure that there is no disadvantage. Why should someone be disadvantaged just because they have served in the armed forces?
I look forward to the commissioner’s next report, which is due to be published in the spring. That report will consider the physical and mental health of veterans in Scotland and ways of improving health outcomes for all veterans and their families. The Scottish Government will consider his recommendations carefully.
Mental health rightly continues to be an area of key focus for the veterans community. We all have a responsibility to realise our vision of a Scotland where people can get the right help at the right time, although I am well aware that the Government has a special responsibility in that regard. People should also be able to expect recovery and to fully enjoy their rights free from discrimination and stigma. Increased investment to support the delivery of our national mental health strategy will help to drive that improvement. Recognising the priority that we attach to that, we have also supported Combat Stress, in partnership with the national health service in Scotland, to deliver specialist and community-based mental health services to veterans. In total, more than £8.5 million has been provided since 2012.
The vast majority of the members of our armed forces transition to be real contributors to our society. That point was made earlier in the debate—I apologise for not being able to remember who made it. That is one of the areas in which I most frequently agree with Tobias Ellwood, who is one of the Ministry of Defence ministers. However, for many veterans, the very fact of having to take responsibility for their health, their housing and their employment can be the scariest thing that they have ever faced and can present real challenges. They need to have support from us in relation to their mental health or their physical challenges.
Our armed forces and veterans charitable sector, of which HorseBack UK is a vital part, offers a strong and effective network of help. I reiterate my appreciation of all our partner charities and organisations and state again my commitment to continue to work closely with them to further support our veterans community.
Meeting closed at 18:19.