Veterans and the Armed Forces Community (Support)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th September 2018.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14094, in the name of Clare Haughey, on Scottish Government support for veterans and the armed forces community in Scotland. I ask those who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Clare Haughey to speak to and move the motion. Minister, you have 13 minutes.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to set out to Parliament the action that the Scottish Government has taken over the past year to support veterans. This update will focus on the steps that we have taken to implement the recommendations of the Scottish veterans commissioner’s report, “Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing—A Distinctive Scottish Approach”, which was published in April.

This is the second annual update to Parliament on the work that we are taking forward to support veterans and recognise their unique contribution to Scotland. This morning, I was honoured to meet some of those veterans when I visited Erskine care home facility in Bishopton and saw at first hand a number of fantastic projects, including the advanced nurse practitioner service and the dementia nurse service. The organisation is one of many across Scotland that is doing excellent work to support veterans and their families. I am encouraged to see so many organisations represented here today because we want to continue to work closely with the third sector to improve the lives of veterans.

Earlier this month, in the programme for government, the First Minister outlined our commitment to ensuring that there is no disadvantage to members of the armed forces and veterans community when they access services and support. Scotland led the way in being the first country in the United Kingdom to appoint a veterans commissioner four years ago. Eric Fraser CBE was appointed to promote veterans’ interests and make sure that the policies that we as a Government have in place provide ex-servicemen and women with the best possible support and opportunities.

Eric Fraser stepped down at the end of August, having had a significant impact on many aspects of the lives of members of the armed forces and veterans. I thank him for all that he achieved during his time as commissioner and wish him all the best for the future.

I am very pleased to welcome Charlie Wallace as the new Scottish veterans commissioner. I, and my ministerial colleagues, look forward to working with him to build on Eric Fraser’s many achievements.

Eric Fraser’s report on veterans’ health and wellbeing recognises the strong track record in Scotland of ensuring that veterans are given the best possible treatment, care and support. It also sets out 18 recommendations for strengthening and enhancing Scotland’s approach to providing healthcare and support for veterans. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that the healthcare needs of serving personnel and veterans are better understood and supported in the national health service. We value the skills and experience that veterans bring to their communities. That is why we have accepted all the recommendations in the commissioner’s report. I will set out the actions that we have taken so far and the work that we will carry out over the next year to implement the recommendations.

The commissioner’s report highlights the fact that the way in which healthcare for veterans is provided is outdated. Our current policy states that all veterans should receive priority treatment for health problems that they experience as a direct result of service to their country, unless another patient’s needs demand higher clinical priority. The commissioner calls for greater focus on the principles of excellence, accessibility and sustainable treatment for all veterans. That is in line with our ambition to provide safe, effective and person-centred healthcare for everyone in Scotland. We will work with stakeholders to develop what the commissioner calls a “distinctive Scottish approach” that ensures that veterans’ health sits at the heart of current and future models of service provision in Scotland.

The joint group on armed forces and veterans healthcare will be central to taking that forward. The group is chaired by the director general for health and social care and includes representatives from the serving community, veterans organisations, Scottish Government officials and other stakeholders. The report recommends that the membership and remit of the group should be refreshed to provide strategic leadership to deliver that distinctive Scottish approach to veterans’ health. We agree with that recommendation. The Scottish Government is working with Veterans Scotland to refresh the group. That will ensure that the right structure is in place to implement the recommendations of the commissioner’s report and provide leadership to develop our wider healthcare for veterans policy. The model that is being considered will consist of a smaller operational delivery group, which will deliver actions agreed by the joint group. A new structure will be in place by the end of the year.

The commissioner also highlights that the integration of health and social care has changed the way that healthcare is provided in Scotland. We need to ensure that veterans’ healthcare is still provided to a very high standard through that new approach. We will be working with the integration joint boards to make sure that veterans’ health needs are considered in the delivery of services.

The main way in which veterans are supported in the health service is through NHS champions. Champions are officials who have volunteered to support armed forces personnel, veterans and their families in their area to ensure that they get access to high-quality services and treatment when they need it. We are working with Veterans Scotland and the joint group to strengthen the network of champions and raise awareness of the support that they provide.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I was fortunate to be sitting beside one of the champions earlier this week and to hear about the work that is being done to support those who have post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues. Will the minister congratulate everyone involved in the champions network and recognise the radical change in how we support veterans after combat, particularly in light of the fact that 100 years have passed since the armistice in 1918?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I echo Mr Stevenson’s words. The champions do a fantastic job and I thank them personally for what they do. I have spoken about the change in mental health services and mental health provision many times in Parliament. I am proud of the change in how we treat our veterans, particularly when they are suffering from mental illness.

Earlier this year, updated information was issued to NHS veterans champions, NHS chief executives and primary care leads to distribute in their health board areas. It included guidance on how veterans can share their full service medical record with their general practitioner. We are also building links between NHS and local authority armed forces champions to reflect health and social care integration.

My officials have also worked with Veterans Scotland to update the information for veterans on the NHS inform website about how they can access healthcare. That was followed by an awareness-raising campaign in June to coincide with armed forces day. NHS inform is evaluating the veterans content on its website to ensure that the information that is provided is as helpful as possible in providing online support.

The commissioner also recommended setting up a managed clinical network to oversee the delivery of veterans’ healthcare. The Scottish Government asked NHS National Services Division to look into setting up such a network as a potential longer-term solution to ensuring equitable and sustainable health services for veterans. I should be clear, however, that the Scottish Government does not drive that process, which is managed by NSD. I am pleased to announce that the consideration of a proposal to establish a network has moved to stage 2 of the NSD planning process. That means that a full application and a detailed work plan will now be developed. A range of stakeholders and interested parties will be involved in developing the proposal.

The commissioner’s report highlights the importance of being able to identify veterans to understand their health needs, including in areas around health inequalities and issues such as drug misuse. We recognise that. We are refreshing our drug strategy, “The Road to Recovery”. The new strategy, which will be published later this year, will recognise the need for a range of services supporting different people with different needs.

In spring next year, a new drug and alcohol information system will be introduced. It will gather data on people engaging with drug and alcohol treatment services, meaning that, for the first time, accurate data will be available on the nature and scale of drug misuse among veterans. The new system will provide a single record for individuals as they move through treatment and recovery services. It will provide valuable data on veterans and allow support and services to be tailored accordingly.

I welcome the focus on the mental health of veterans and their families in the commissioner’s report. It rightly highlights a number of positives, which we should be proud of. The report recognises the significantly improved support for those suffering mental ill health after time spent in the armed forces. It recognises that, in recent years, veterans have been able to access a number of specialist and mainstream services, with Scotland being in the vanguard in many ways. It also recognises that the majority of those who leave the military do so without severe mental health problems and cope well with the transition to civilian life.

The report’s clarity on the importance of mental health and wellbeing is in line with the guiding ambition in our mental health strategy: we must prevent and treat mental health problems with the same commitment, passion and drive that we apply to physical health problems.

Although there is much to be proud of, I agree with the commissioner that there is no room for complacency and that further improvements can be made. However, I am confident that many of the key themes and 40 actions in the Scottish Government’s 10-year mental health strategy will impact positively on veterans and their families. On Tuesday, I made a statement to Parliament setting out progress in delivering the actions in the strategy since its launch in March last year. A detailed progress report has also been published on the Scottish Government’s website. I am confident that fully implementing the strategy will lead to improvement in many areas.

To support improvements, I expect that in 2017-18, NHS investment in mental health will have exceeded £1 billion for the first time. Our commitment to good mental health was clearly set out in the programme for government. We will introduce a comprehensive package of measures to improve mental health services for children, young people and adults, and to ensure that support for good mental health is embedded across our public services. We will invest an additional £250 million in the period to 2022-23 to support that, and we will work across all levels of government, public services, the third sector and communities to deliver it. That will help to drive improvement across the whole system, including for veterans and their families.

I also acknowledge the commissioner’s call to protect specialist mental health services. He mentions the services that are provided by Combat Stress and veterans first point. The Scottish Government funding that is available to support veterans’ mental health through those organisations will total more than £5.8 million over the next three years. That funding will help to support veterans first point services across six areas in Scotland to provide a one-stop shop for veterans and their families, no matter what their health, social, housing, employment or other needs are. It will also fund specialist mental health services and intensive treatment programmes provided by Combat Stress for veterans who are resident in Scotland.

As members know, I recently launched the Scottish Government’s suicide prevention action plan, “Every Life Matters”. I am clear that no death by suicide should be regarded as either acceptable or inevitable. More needs to be done to help people who are contemplating suicide, including veterans, and to ensure that the right support is in place for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. I hope that that demonstrates our commitment to improving mental health services for veterans and I look forward to considering what further help and support we can offer.

I recognise that our veterans leave service with a range of skills that can be transferred to other careers, not least our NHS. A number of veterans have moved from the armed forces into careers in the health service, and we want to do more to support veterans who want to do that. NHS Scotland is exploring ways of promoting career opportunities for veterans, including through case studies and information on the NHS Scotland careers website, and through existing training and development opportunities.

I again thank Eric Fraser for his important work in highlighting not only the excellent services that are already in place, but how we can continue to ensure equitable and high-quality services for our veterans. We have much to be proud of, but his report highlights areas in which renewed focus is needed.

We have accepted the recommendations that are set out in the report and now need to respond appropriately to the challenges that have been raised. I have demonstrated how the Government has started to implement the recommendations through beginning the process of setting up a managed clinical network, sharing information about the support that is available to veterans from the NHS and improving the structure of the joint group. Over the next year, we will work to fully implement the distinctive Scottish approach to healthcare for veterans.

As a society, we owe a debt of gratitude to our veterans and we must ensure that that is recognised through high-quality services to meet their needs.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, I cannot remember you moving the motion.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I move,

That the Parliament recognises and values the contribution of the Armed Forces and veterans community to Scotland; commends the excellent work of the first Scottish Veterans Commissioner, Eric Fraser, including his most recent report on veterans’ health and wellbeing; welcomes the new Commissioner, Charlie Wallace, and supports continuing partnership working across all levels of government and the private and charitable sectors to ensure that the Armed Forces, veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to opportunities across Scotland.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I declare an interest as an armed forces veteran. I welcome Graeme Dey to his role and I wish him well as the Scottish Government’s new veterans minister. I pay tribute to and thank Keith Brown for all the work that he has done over the past few years for our armed forces and veterans in Scotland. I also thank Eric Fraser for his work as the former Scottish veterans commissioner.

The Scottish Conservatives will support the Scottish Government’s motion at decision time today, and I hope that the Scottish Government will support my amendment to the motion. Veterans must be supported in every possible way, and I hope that the debate will raise awareness of how that has and can be done.

I welcome serving members of the armed forces and veterans who are in the public gallery to watch today’s debate. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I also welcome Charlie Wallace, with his vast military experience, to his post as the new Scottish veterans commissioner. I am sure that Mr Wallace will champion the abilities of Scotland’s veterans and ensure that they are supported.

Our first commissioner, Eric Fraser, made an enormous effort to highlight the voice of our armed forces community. I thank him for his detailed research, which showed the ways in which veterans can be supported and encouraged the provision of more opportunities for them in their communities.

Today, I will focus on veterans’ mental health support, which is an area that it is vital to understand and improve, especially as veterans transition back into civilian life. We must be careful to remember that many veterans return to their families and communities without the weight of mental health issues. We should never assume that they are automatically suffering or in need. However, we should not assume that those who face such problems can be left to take care of themselves or to make themselves known.

Scotland’s veterans can experience a multitude of issues on their return from active service, including PTSD, anxiety and depression, to name a few. Their mental health state often seems to be a factor that either causes or is influenced by those problems, and we must emphasise isolation in that regard. A survey that was undertaken last year found that a third of ex-service personnel felt lonely or isolated from others due to physical or mental health issues. Some veterans struggle to communicate with friends and family on their return, and those difficulties easily seep into other aspects of their lives, such as finding suitable employment and housing.

We must not forget that the armed forces community that is made up of their families and loved ones can also face social isolation and mental health issues, particularly if they are bereaved. I was reminded of that fact by a recent parliamentary event that I attended and sponsored, which was entitled not just a wife.

Eric Fraser’s informative health and wellbeing report showed that the older generation of veterans are at greater risk of loneliness, which, understandably, they can find very challenging.

I have already raised in this chamber the issue of suicidal thoughts among early service leavers and female veterans. Ensuring their wellbeing should be of the utmost importance to the Scottish Government.

Public misconceptions about the capabilities and skills of veterans also pose potential problems for them. Eric Fraser raised the need to encourage society to value the vast range of skills that veterans have to offer. I hope that the Scottish Government will open up more opportunities for ex-service personnel to contribute to their communities, free from stigma and the limited expectations of others.

It is encouraging to see the support that is already on offer from the variety of mental health charities in Scotland. An amazing 320 armed forces charities exist in our country, of which almost 50 provide health and wellbeing services alone. Combat Stress continually ensures that its treatment programmes offer the best care for its veterans. Those who are in a long-term programme with Combat Stress are considerably less likely to be affected by mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. Veteran participants also experience fewer issues with alcohol and social involvement.

Breakfast clubs for veterans are another excellent avenue of support. They are cost effective and they encourage veterans to meet one other in a relaxed environment at the beginning of the day. Poppy Scotland and Legion Scotland collaborate with groups such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health to act as a referral pathway for those with mental health challenges, working through Veterans Gateway and befriending services.

On the whole, it is reassuring to witness the marked progress in the support that is on offer to the armed forces community throughout Scotland. Veterans are treated with more respect and care than they once received, but we need to do more in the sector in Scotland. I welcome the funding that the Scottish Government has allocated thus far and what the minister said in her speech. Veterans organisations have been supported through the Scottish veterans fund in various projects across the country. The United Kingdom Government has also worked closely with the Samaritans this year to publish a guide on mental health issues among servicemen and women. I hope that those endeavours will increase awareness of the support that is available to our veterans and their loved ones.

However, the Scottish Government must not become complacent where the mental wellbeing of Scotland’s veterans is concerned. Mental health support must be given a higher priority than it has been in the past. Sadly, there was no mention of support for the armed forces community in the Government’s recent mental health strategy progress report. The mental health centre in Leuchars has been closed, despite the fact that an increasing number—

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Corry for taking my intervention. I assure him that the Scottish Government views veterans’ health as a high priority and that I mentioned veterans in the statement that I made earlier this week.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I note what the minister says and thank her for those points.

That means that the standard of care for our servicemen and women is nowhere near what it should be, and the stark gap in provision must be addressed. If the resources of NHS Scotland and the Ministry of Defence could be collaboratively pooled, that might allow the drop-in centres to reach their optimum level of mental health support. I suggest to the minister that the Vale of Leven hospital would be an ideal centre for that, particularly given the large number of military personnel in the Helensburgh and Lomond area in West Dunbartonshire, including the Clyde basin.

The Scottish Government must encourage deeper research into the mental health issues that veterans face, and that should not be limited to PTSD, as we know that veterans are affected differently from the general population. I hope that plans will be made with a long-term view in order to ensure that the current service users are consistently helped as they grow older.

Veterans first point is an example of the services to which the Scottish Government must devote more time and effort. Its regional drop-in centres offer not only mental health services but support in education, housing and welfare, among other areas. Specialist veterans’ therapists and clinical psychologists are on hand to tailor advice that is based on the specific needs of individuals under their care. The Scottish Government must work more closely with regional health boards to ensure that that lifeline service is underpinned and allowed to continue with greater clarity regarding its goal.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I confirm that the Government will accept Mr Corry’s amendment. However, does he recognise the very substantial sum that the Scottish Government has already put into the veterans first point system—the best part of £1 million?

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I accept that, but we need more focus in the health boards. We are in the new era of integration joint boards—I declare an interest as I was chairman of one in Argyll and Bute, and I understand the problems. There is still a learning curve there, so I implore the minister and the Minister for Mental Health to look at that and make sure that they understand what veterans require from the services. There is a bit of ignorance there, not on the part of ministers, but on the part of the health boards.

Effective governmental support for our veterans’ wellbeing can only be worthwhile. If it can be secured with better communication and stability—for example, through the health boards—other areas of veterans’ lives, such as housing and employment, can then be made much easier. Veteran support can be made more efficient through stronger partnership. I can assure members that a solid foundation of mental health support will encourage Scotland’s veterans to move forward.

I move amendment S5M-14094.2, to insert at end:

“and that health support is being delivered to the Armed Forces and veterans’ community to meet any specific needs that they may have as a result of their service.”

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

As Mr Corry has done, I declare an interest as an armed forces veteran. I welcome the new Minister for

Parliamentary Business and Veterans to his post. In line with Mr Corry, I thank Keith Brown for the hard work and obvious passion that he brought to the subject of veterans and armed forces, which, in the history of this Parliament, has not before been higher on a Government’s agenda. That is a testament to Mr Brown’s work, and I thank him on behalf of Labour members.

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the subject of armed forces veterans and the work of the Scottish veterans commissioner, and to talk about the vital support services and charities that operate in Scotland and throughout the UK. From the outset, I acknowledge the debt of gratitude that Scotland owes to those who have served in the defence of freedom, and put on record the continued support that we, on this side of the chamber, give to our armed forces personnel and veterans in Scotland. 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—particularly in finding housing and employment—and we recognise that those who leave the service can bear physical and psychological scars for many years after their service ends.

Being a member of the armed forces, particularly during times of conflict, is immensely stressful—beyond anything that we might imagine. However, that stressful situation creates a level of commitment and an intense bond among service personnel that is unique to our armed forces. I could only listen and try to take it on board and comprehend it when I heard from a soldier who had served in Afghanistan what it was like to come under fire, and what the impact on their battalion or regiment was when it lost a member of its own, who was as close to them as any member of their family might be.

I can only imagine how isolated someone must feel if they are discharged from the armed forces into society alone, with no family support, and having had such a close bond with the comrades with whom they fought and whom they possibly lost in combat. They go from living in close quarters with people whom they considered family—eating, sleeping, working and socialising in the same close group—to being discharged into a community of strangers who tend not to understand military life and the bond between people that it creates.

The majority of servicemen and women make an overwhelmingly successful transition into civilian life. Our veterans in Scotland are not a problem; they are an absolute asset to communities. As the minister said, veterans have transferable skills that they may not realise they have, which then become assets to companies and communities.

For the reasons that I mentioned, it is not hard to see why some veterans struggle to adapt and reintegrate, which can put a massive strain on family life as well as on those without family. It is vital that advice and support services are in place for former service personnel to adjust to living in mainstream society. We must support plans to co-ordinate and deliver support and advice services from the public, private and voluntary sectors for ex-service personnel, their partners and their children.

There are too many fantastic organisations that provide support and advice to ex-service personnel and their families to mention and do justice to them all, but I want to mention some of them. We must continue to support organisations that do tremendous work in the community for former service personnel across Scotland, including the Royal British Legion, which provides practical care, advice and support to armed forces personnel, ex-servicemen and women of all ages and their families.

Along with Poppy Scotland, the legion runs a poppy appeal annually. Recent appeals have emphasised the increasing need to help the men and women who are serving today as well as ex-service people and their dependents. The legion also assists any serviceman or woman to pursue their entitlement to a war disablement pension, and every year up to 200 ex-service personnel in Scotland are represented at war pensions tribunals.

Just across the road from the Parliament is the Scottish veterans’ residence, which provides residential accommodation to more than 300 ex-service people and their partners and has helped thousands of veterans throughout Scotland since it was established. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, whose Lanarkshire branch covers my region of Central Scotland, 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, a support service independent from the chain of command, which serving members of the armed forces can go to in confidence that they will receive the support and advice that they need. It also runs a forces additional needs disability support group and organises children’s holidays run by volunteers, which offer experiences and activities that some of the children would not normally have access to.

Erskine was mentioned by the minister. It is a leading provider of care for veterans in the country and provides fantastic services in the community.

There are things that individual members of the Scottish Parliament can do to assist armed forces veterans and their families, and supporting some of those fantastic charities and the work of the Scottish veterans commissioner is just the start.

I will close as I opened, by 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. As always, we are more than happy to work on a cross-party basis to support veterans in Scotland.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

About one in 20 adults in Scotland has served in our armed forces. I want to emphasise that the vast majority of them go on to lead perfectly normal lives, but a significant number do not. I speak as an ex-serviceman, having served some 15 years in the Army at home and abroad. Like me, the vast majority of former service personnel who live in Scotland today have benefited greatly from their time in uniform.

In last year’s veterans debate on 16 November, I criticised the Scottish Government’s decision not to fund fully the veterans first point service in NHS Grampian. We have heard about veterans first point, and I am astonished that people do not realise that it is not available everywhere. The Scottish Government insisted that 50 per cent of the funding for the service had to be the responsibility of our underfunded health boards. NHS Grampian could not do that, so the service folded. Maybe our new ministers are not aware of that.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Ministers are very much aware of the situation at NHS Grampian. It was disappointing that NHS Grampian did not accept the Scottish Government’s offer of matched funding, as the majority of health boards did.

I want to pick up on the point about NHS

Grampian being underfunded. NHS Grampian’s resource budget has increased by almost 20 per cent in real terms since 2010, and in cash terms by 57.8 per cent since 2006. The decision on first point was for NHS Grampian to make. Mr Rumbles cannot blame the Scottish Government for that.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am thankful for that intervention, because I can give a bit more information to the minister, who is completely unaware of the situation with NHS Grampian. Maybe that is why the Government pulled the service from NHS Grampian. Does the minister understand that £165 million was pulled from NHS Grampian’s funding by the

Scottish Government? The Scottish Government’s own funding formula has done that over the past nine years.

I was not going to raise the issue of funding, but the minister has raised it, so I am going to pursue it, because we cannot allow that misinformation to be put across. If NHS Grampian were funded in proportion to its population, that would be something, but it is funded at 10 per cent below that, even according to the Scottish Government’s targets. The Scottish Government has failed for the past nine years to reach its own target. That is why NHS Grampian could not afford to spend the money.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Would members please listen to Mr Rumbles?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

It is the SNP’s fault, on this occasion. I am not trying to make the debate partisan—[

Interruption

.] The minister seems to be. I am responding to what has been said, which is certainly changing the tone of the debate. [

Interruption

.]

I cannot understand the Scottish Government’s position. The truth is that the Scottish Government has been short-sighted in its refusal to fund fully the veterans first point centres. If it were to fund them, we would have the service across the country, and people in my area would benefit greatly from it. The Scottish Government should not turn a blind eye to former service personnel in the north-east.

As is the case with the Scottish Government’s programme for mental health services, there are issues with the suicide prevention strategy being somewhat slow. People who have risked their lives for this country and who have given years of service in the armed forces must be safe in the knowledge that they will return home to well-resourced services for mental health and physical health. As long as the Scottish Government is cutting funding to lifeline services, I treat with some scepticism statements of support of the sort that I have heard today.

I am here today representing the people I represent, so it is about time that the Scottish Government listened to voices such as mine and stopped patting itself on the back for providing a service across the country when the service does not exist in Grampian.

I am thankful to the many great organisations that work in my area—especially Age Scotland, which has stepped into the breach. However, it serves only the over-60s, and there are a lot of veterans in Grampian who are younger than that. Age Scotland, Poppyscotland and Help for Heroes have stepped into the breach and are doing work that the Scottish Government has, in my view, a civic responsibility and a moral obligation to carry out.

It is not uncommon for service personnel who left the armed forces many years ago to be still struggling to adjust to civilian life. This summer, we learned that the Scottish Government and the UK Government have either failed to log or have not provided, for one reason or another, figures on the number of veterans in Scotland who have committed suicide or have attempted to do so. I make the case that we need that information from both Governments. I am not trying to criticise them—[

Interruption

.]—I am trying to ask them to do some work.

The Presiding Officer:

If members wish to make interventions, they should press their button, get on their feet and make a request. Otherwise, they should keep their comments to themselves.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

At the end of 2017, the UK-wide charity, Combat Stress, which works with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions, reported a 143 per cent rise in referrals over the past 10 years.

Some veterans—I keep mentioning this—especially those who have served in the armed forces for only a short time, are at significantly increased risk of self harm, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow. For example, the risk of self harm among veterans who have had brief periods of service currently averages 30 per cent above the norm. Further, a recent report shows that veterans are more prone to homelessness than non-veterans are, and are 10 per cent more likely to become homeless in Scotland than they are in England. I would like to know why that is. We need more work to be done on that.

Some of our veterans have fewer transferable skills, limited family and social networks, higher-than-average debt, increased levels of isolation, more chance of homelessness and so on, so I welcome the work that our charities are doing to provide support for veterans in Scotland. Without them, the situation might be much worse. I also welcome the fact that the Scottish Government provides a measure of funding to most of our health boards—that is, those that can afford to put in 50 per cent and match its funding.

I make no excuses for the points that I have made. I am representing the people of Grampian, who feel that they are not represented by many of their north-east MSPs, whose voices could be raised as I am raising mine now. I really want the Scottish Government to turn around. I believe that there is a moral duty on the Scottish Government to fund our health boards properly so that they can all help our veterans who need help.

All of our veterans have done their duty. I want the Scottish Government to do its duty for all our veterans.

The Presiding Officer:

We now move to the open debate, and start with Keith Brown to be followed by Brian Whittle.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Our armed forces are an essential and vital part of our communities—I think that there is consensus on that. They contribute vastly to Scotland’s economy, and they enrich our society with their wealth of knowledge, skills and experience. We all recognise the dedication, professionalism and sacrifice of our armed forces.

Recent conflicts and the on-going fight against terrorism have demonstrated the magnitude of the debt of gratitude that we owe our armed forces, our veterans and their families, which has been spoken of by a number of members.

That recognition is important to the wellbeing of our veterans. For example, the first world war commemorations have included drumhead services marking the start of the war, the Quintinshill rail disaster, Scotland’s entry to the Gallipoli campaign, the battle of Loos, the battle of Jutland—there were services in South Queensferry and Orkney—and the centenary of the battle of Arras. Commemoration events will continue to be supported until we have marked a century since the end of the first world war, through a service to mark the centenary of the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1 January 2019. We appreciate the sacrifice that has been made—to turn a current political phrase on its head—by the few for the many.

That is why I welcome the steps that have been taken by the Scottish Government to recognise that sacrifice and to support our armed forces and services personnel and help them to make a transition to civilian lives. I do so on the basis that the Scottish Government does not—in fact, none of the devolved Administrations does—receive any dedicated resources from the Treasury to carry out those activities. They are all done at the discretion of the devolved Administrations. Despite the demand that we have heard—not least today—for specific veteran-centred services, it is nothing short of stomach-churning hypocrisy and mendacity that people use the ending of UK Government funding for services in Scotland as an expedient way to attack the Scottish Government. Many veterans feel the same way as I do.

The Scottish Government’s 2012 “Our Commitments” report outlines the extensive work that is carried out to support veterans and their families, and has informed the subsequent development of a widespread network of armed forces champions. It committed more than £10 million to organisations that support veterans who have housing, healthcare, employability and other needs.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does Keith Brown understand that the veterans first point service is a health service? The health service is fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. It is our responsibility.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I understand that. Unfortunately, Mike Rumbles does not understand that the initiative that he talks about was funded by LIBOR—London interbank offered rate—funding from the UK Government, which has ended. The Scottish Government has picked up the reins and has continued to provide the services. It is stomach-churning hypocrisy and mendacity from some people to use that as a stick to beat the Scottish Government, rather than properly to represent the interests of veterans.

The “Renewing our Commitments” document was published in 2016 to reflect on Scotland’s achievements so far and to set out future priorities. I am very proud that the Scottish Government appointed the UK’s first veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, who has been mentioned and who recently retired—I add my voice to those that have thanked him for his work. As Maurice Corry said, he was succeeded by Charlie Wallace, who is equally dedicated to promoting the interests of former members of the armed forces.

Considerable progress has been made, including the fact that the Scottish veterans fund has, since its creation in 2008, committed more than £1.3 million to more than 140 projects and organisations that support veterans across Scotland, and to the development of a programme of work that will identify and tackle barriers that are experienced by service leavers when they seek civilian employment. That should not just be any employment—it should be employment that is commensurate with the skills, experience and abilities that veterans have developed while they were in the armed forces. An example is the colour sergeant who was grateful, when he came out, to get a job as a truck driver, but whose experience and abilities really demanded so much more.

We have helped to build stronger working relationships between the Scottish Government, the veterans community and private sector employers. We have promoted clear signposting for service delivery through the veterans-assist.org website, and we have ensured that long-term clinical needs are much better understood and supported in the NHS. We have also improved transition pathways for people who leave the services, and we have taken steps to make it easier for armed forces personnel and veterans to rent and own a home. It is still the case that most serving armed forces personnel do not understand that they are entitled to put their name down for a council house and that they accrue points during their service. Why do they not know that? Why is the MOD not telling them of those rights?

Over the summer, we witnessed the ridiculous spectacle of the UK Government’s defence secretary claiming to be a champion of the armed forces. Most of the people whom I have talked to saw that merely as political game playing. The UK Government did that by announcing payments to armed forces personnel who were earning more than £33,000 a year who faced modest income tax increases under the Scottish Government’s scheme, under which 70 per cent of Scottish taxpayers pay less tax. That was despite the UK Government—the alleged champion of the armed forces and veterans—having shed 2,000 military and civilian jobs in Scotland since 2012, and having suspended the type 31 frigate contracts at Clyde shipyards, which is a betrayal that puts thousands of essential skilled jobs at risk.

Furthermore, the MOD sets the armed forces terms and conditions, and members should not forget that the UK Government’s public sector pay cap still applies.

Of course, veterans living in Scotland benefit from a wide range of services that are not available elsewhere in the UK, including free school meals, prescriptions and eye tests, and paying no tuition fees and getting living costs support in higher education. If the UK Government were the true champion of the armed forces, it would no doubt ensure that squaddies who are based in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would look forward to the MOD compensating them for the fact that they do not have access to free school meals, prescriptions, eye tests and all the rest.

The truth is that successive UK Governments have hammered the armed forces in Scotland—including through the systematic dismantling of proud Scottish regiments that were rooted in their local communities, including the one that I represent. They have undertaken a base-closure programme that will drastically reduce MOD spending in Scotland.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

Presiding Officer, I think that we are veering off the subject. We should be talking about veterans and not having a political speech from Keith Brown.

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Brown is close enough to the topic.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I have already made the point that how we treat the armed forces has a fundamental impact on the wellbeing of our veterans. People serving on the Afghanistan front line being served with a P45 will be affected by that.

Earlier this year, a freedom of information request to the MOD revealed that 220 staff in Scotland earn below the real living wage of £8.75 an hour, yet there has been no UK Government action.

I am very proud of, and make no apology for, the fact that the Scottish Government has led from the front so that, as a society, we do right by our armed forces and, therefore, our veterans. No one should suffer disadvantage as a result of military service—whether they are active service personnel and veterans or their spouses, partners and children—and Scotland must continue to offer the excellent support for veterans that has been developed by this Parliament over recent years. I support the motion.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I am delighted to take part in today’s debate. It seems particularly apt to be discussing support for veterans and the wider armed forces community in Scotland right now, given that, in not much more than six weeks, we will unite across the country and the continent to mark 100 years since armistice day and the end of hostilities on the western front in the first world war.

Today, I do not want to talk about the end of war. I want to talk about what comes after it ends and what happens when those who have bravely served their country with honour and distinction take off their uniform for the last time and return to civilian life.

The need for veterans to have support after their service is nothing new. Back in the first world war, men leaving their unit received a medical examination and Army form Z22, which allowed them to claim for any disability arising from their service. The support for veterans was far from perfect, but it shows that, as a country, we have long recognised the need to support those who put themselves in harm’s way for their country.

Today, Scotland has much to be proud of when it comes to supporting veterans, but that does not mean that we cannot do more, whether that is by building on existing good practices or by exploring completely new avenues.

South Scotland, and Ayrshire in particular, is fortunate when it comes to support for the armed forces community. Ayrshire is home to about 37,000 people who have served, or are still serving, and their families. It is also home to outstanding examples of support for veterans.

Hollybush house, which is one of three Combat Stress residential treatment centres in the UK and the only one in Scotland, is a short drive from Ayr. Hollybush provides residential accommodation and support to veterans dealing with mental health issues, offering them a safe and private place to take time and recuperate.

In Kilmarnock, the Poppyscotland Ayrshire welfare centre is one of only two centres in Scotland that allow visitors to access support from a number of organisations under one roof. Built with funding from the MacRobert Trust and LIBOR fines, the centre plays host to organisations such as the Regular Forces Employment Association, veterans first point Ayrshire, the St John and Red Cross Defence Medical Welfare Service and Combat Stress. A person can go into the centre and receive help and support with finding employment, securing housing and dealing with mental or physical health problems and a wide range of other issues.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the member agree that the Scottish Government has a responsibility to ensure that that sort of service, which is available to his constituents, is also available to my constituents?

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I understand the member’s concern, which he has expressed previously. I would like such support services to be available to all our veterans in Scotland.

Just as the many different specialisms in our armed forces work together as a united force, we must ensure that the many organisations that offer help to veterans work together to deliver the best possible support. One of the best examples of partnership working among forces charities and others to deliver wrap-around support is the unforgotten forces project, which brings together 15 organisations with the aim of improving support for veterans in Scotland who are over 65 and their families. The project is led by Poppyscotland and its members include Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, Age Scotland, Erskine Hospital, the Scottish Older People’s Assembly, Royal British Legion Scotland, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association—Forces Help and the University of the West of Scotland.

A key feature of the unforgotten forces project is the ease of referral between member organisations. Contacting one group is like contacting them all. Such seamless working between groups makes life easier for veterans by taking some of the stress out of looking for help and enabling support organisations to deliver a better service more quickly.

The unforgotten forces project is a great example of organisations working together to build a community with a shared sense of purpose. Anyone who has served in the armed forces will talk about how strong the sense of belonging to a community is. The creation of the same sense of community for someone who has left the armed forces is a vital component in helping the person to adjust to civilian life. Communities come in many forms; they can enable veterans to make new friends or find employment. Even something as simple as connecting people who share a love of playing sport or support a football team can tackle the sense of isolation and loss that comes to people who leave the armed forces.

Unlike some of the members who have spoken in the debate, I have never served in the armed forces. However, I have some understanding of how it feels to be defined as one thing one day and then to lose that identity the next day. A professional athlete spends most of their time working with a small team, which trains together, travels together, lives together and competes together. Their entire world is defined by what they do as an athlete, until one day they reach the end of their career and realise that they must now be something else.

That change can come suddenly. I did not plan to retire from athletics when I did; when I was preparing for the Olympics, I broke my ankle, which left me unable to train or compete at a critical time. It is hard to explain how it feels when a job that has so utterly dominated one’s life comes to such an abrupt halt.

I am by no means suggesting that a career as an athlete is comparable to a career in the armed forces. However, to one degree or another, both careers take a person away from everyday life and put them into a smaller, very focused community. Acknowledging the change that will come and having the opportunity to prepare for it can make a big difference to its impact. I must be honest and say that I am still most comfortable in the company of my old colleagues in athletics—and I retired more than 20 years ago.

Early intervention to support veterans and the armed forces community is important and needs to cover a broad range of issues, from employability to health, housing and supporting the families of service personnel. Throughout Scotland there are great examples of partnership working and innovative thinking that are helping to transform the lives of veterans and the wider armed forces community. However, we should be asking whether we can do something earlier. If a veteran needs help, do they know where to go? Will they feel comfortable getting in touch? Should they go to a service, or should the service come to them?

Not every veteran needs help when they leave the armed forces, but from the moment a person decides that it is time to leave, they should know that help is there if it is needed. Sun Tzu said that every battle is won or lost before it is fought. The same can be said in the context of protecting our veterans’ health, especially their mental health. By intervening early and building strong partnerships between organisations, we give ourselves the best chance of helping veterans at the earliest possible stage, which can make a difference to treatment and recovery.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s continuing commitment to the armed forces community. Scotland has much to be proud of when it comes to how it treats its veterans, but there is more that we can do. I look forward to working with members of all parties on the issue in future.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to voice my support for the armed forces and the veteran community.

Like others, I express my thanks to Eric Fraser, Scotland’s first veterans commissioner—the first in the UK, I believe—and I wish his successor, Charlie Wallace, well in his endeavours to galvanise a team Scotland approach to ensure that all spheres of government and civic Scotland play their part in providing the best possible support and opportunities to our armed forces, our veterans and their families.

From my engagement with veterans, I often sense that they are acutely conscious of the stigma associated with labels, particularly for those who experience mental health issues. I believe that the motion sets the right tone in focusing—rightly—on those who need support and on the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice

but in recognising as well that veterans have talents and skills that we want to tap into. I noticed a few minutes ago that my constituents Mr and Mrs Elliot are in the public gallery. They are great assets not just to the veterans community but to the wider Livingston community.

Of course, we absolutely want Scotland to be the destination of choice when our men and women from the armed forces return to civilian life.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

It is not just veterans we should be welcoming but their families, many of whom bring the transferable skills that we could use up here. Will the member join me in welcoming the families who return with veterans to live in Scotland?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Aye, indeed. When I was education secretary, I worked very hard with various organisations to tap into the talents of veterans and their families, particularly those who could help out in our classrooms.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Scottish War Blinded centre in Linburn, in my constituency, and I am pleased that the veterans minister has had an early opportunity to visit that wonderful national resource. He will no doubt recall that the Scottish War Blinded charity has doubled its membership in the past five years and will support any veteran with sight loss, no matter the cause. As I stated in the recent parliamentary debate on suicide prevention, Scottish War Blinded provides a life-enhancing and at times a life-saving service due to its work to reduce social isolation, which is an issue that Maurice Corry also raised.

I was genuinely shocked by the high levels of social isolation in the ex-service community. A survey by Poppyscotland and the Royal British Legion found that 70 per cent of respondents thought that loneliness and isolation are a serious issue. Research by Scottish War Blinded found that nearly two thirds of respondents said that their sight loss had directly contributed to feelings of loneliness, the top reasons being problems with mobility and transport and vision impairment making it hard to make friends.

The great thing about Scottish War Blinded is that it wants to do more to help more veterans access specialist equipment and support, and it is not even asking Government—or anyone else for that matter—for more money to do so. However, what it needs is better and earlier signposting of veterans to the charity through health services and when people are going through the process of obtaining the certificate of vision impairment. I have written to ministers about that and I hope that it is something that they can help with.

I recognise the logic of the count them in campaign; there is a need to know who is a veteran and where they are. That is important information if we are going to provide the right services, at the right time, in the right place. That is particularly true in relation to health and wellbeing.

On that point, it would be remiss of me not to mention my constituent Mr Williamson from East Calder, who is campaigning for free swimming for veterans locally. We have been on a wee bit of a correspondence merry-go-round. Although the Scottish veterans fund can be accessed to support physical and mental wellbeing, it cannot be used to cover the cost of existing services. However, I appreciate the advice of the minister and Veterans Scotland. They point to partnership working to identify a suitable organisation or project. Therefore, the search for a solution to access free swimming continues. Perhaps in future considerations, ministers can think about how funding can be more flexible and criteria can be more adaptable.

Other members have said that this year is the centenary of the end of the first world war. There has been a rich seam of local activity in the area that I represent. West Lothian Council museums service’s fantastic @WW1WestLothian history Twitter feed follows the Royal Scots regiment and tweets the regiment’s experiences as if in real time. There are various other local projects that are run by volunteers, such as the 1914 to 1918: Fauldhouse remembers project and the far from the front website, which tells the story of life in West Calder during the great war. Next month, there will be a play in the west kirk of Calder that tells the story of West Lothian and Bangour hospital during the war. Bangour hospital was requisitioned by the military in 1915 and housed more than 3,000 wounded servicemen by 1918.

I pay tribute to the members of the Livingston branch of the Royal British Legion. They do a fantastic and very poignant festival of remembrance, and they have recently embarked on a tour of remembrance in France and Belgium. On behalf of the people of Livingston, they are paying their respects and commemorating the last 100 days of the great war.

As we approach remembrance day, we should acknowledge the importance of what we do every day—not just on remembrance day—to support our veterans, the armed forces and their families.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

I am pleased to speak in this debate on Scottish Government support for veterans and the armed forces community in Scotland.

Like other members, I acknowledge the good work that is taking place in Scotland. Good progress has been made through the Scottish Government, local government and the many service and veterans organisations working together. The document that the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans issued this week demonstrated much of that good work.

Members of our veterans and armed forces community serve and have served our country with honour, courage and commitment. It is right that we take note of that and offer the Parliament’s respect and gratitude for their service. It is also right that we remember those who lost their lives serving our country.

It should be obvious that veterans and their families should be given the support that is required when it is needed. However, that is not always the case, particularly for people who have been involved in recent conflicts. It is easy for a person to switch off the reality of conflict when that conflict is taking place thousands of miles away and poses no immediate threat to them or their family. However, the realities of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan included 632 British soldiers being killed and tens of thousands being injured. Even those statistics cannot allow me to begin to imagine the horrific experience of being in armed conflict.

That is why we all in Scotland have a duty to all those who have served in our armed forces, particularly those who have served in recent conflicts, and now need our support. Combat Stress, which is a UK-wide charity that works with veterans with PTSD and other mental health conditions, has seen a 143 per cent rise in referrals over the past 10 years. It is not right that many veterans who have served our country are left behind on return and that a number of them end up homeless, jobless or lacking the support that they need. Those people have put their lives on the line doing a job that they were sent to do. Surely they deserve better treatment when they return.

Two months ago, I lodged a parliamentary motion on the suicide figures for veterans. That motion was not about political point scoring; it was about addressing the very real concern that the number of UK veterans who take their own lives is not being accounted for and is being overlooked. The data is not made available to the public. Sharing that information would allow for a better understanding of what is going on and would provide a vital resource to prevent further tragedies. That view is supported by the human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar and Admiral Lord West, who is a former head of the Royal Navy, as well as by the Mental Health Foundation Scotland. Earlier this week, we had a ministerial statement on the annual report on the Government’s mental health strategy. However, information on the number of former service personnel who take their own lives was not available, and I again ask why that is the case.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I would like to offer Mr Rowley a bit of reassurance. One of the actions in the suicide prevention action plan is that we will investigate every death by suicide. I anticipate that such an investigation would identify whether the person who had died was a veteran. Therefore, that information would be available at that point in time.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

If that could be achieved, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

I wrote to the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans on 19 July to ask what was being done to address the issue. In response, he said that the Scottish Government was exploring how to share data between databases to address that problem. That was back in August. He might be able to say more about that when he winds up the debate.

I would like to end by quoting Rose Gentle, who is a leading campaigner whom I met a number of years ago. Her 19-year-old son, Gordon, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in Iraq in 2004. Earlier this year, she told

The Scotsman

“It’s wrong that the information on veteran suicides is kept hidden. They should have ‘veteran’ there beside the list of occupations to let people understand what’s happening ... The situation for boys leaving the services now is just as bad as it ever was. Basically, it all gets back to what they’ve seen. And then they’ve got to come back and live with it, the nightmares, and at the same time trying to get their lives going again. A lot end up homeless and struggling. They are just really depressed and feel that life is not worth living. It can take 10 or 15 years or more for them to admit to what’s happening to them. But we’re going to see more of it in the future.”

She concluded by saying:

“It’s charities that are mostly helping these boys, not the government.”

I accept Keith Brown’s point that the UK Government needs to be more involved and that we should unite to put pressure on the UK Government to show the same initiative that has been shown in Scotland.

Sadly, I have met many families who have lost a loved one in the most recent armed conflicts, and they all speak of the need for better support and services for those who came home. Good progress is being made, but more must be done to ensure that support is available for veterans when that support is needed.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Dreghorn and Redford infantry and cavalry barracks are located in my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands, and the Army personnel—those who are serving and those who are retired—and their families are an integral and valued part of the community.

The commissioner’s report recognises that a significant number of men and women in our communities struggle with service-related injuries and conditions. It also points out that the work in establishing

“‘specialist’ physical and mental health services in Scotland has had a significant impact over subsequent years and has rightly attracted considerable attention and praise.”

I am very pleased that the Scottish Government is building on that with the recently announced increased investment in mental health services. Over the next three years, an additional £5.8 million of funding will be provided to veterans first point and Combat Stress to help them to provide specialist mental health support for veterans, and a further 800 mental health professionals will be recruited over the next five years in key areas such as GP practices and accident and emergency. That will drive improvements in the services that will benefit veterans and their families.

It is clear that the Scottish Government’s support for the armed forces community is absolute. The veterans first point centre in Lothian, which was established during 2009, was the original first point project, and it is now part of a network of eight centres across Scotland. The project’s strength is in no small part down to the fact that it was designed in collaboration with veterans, who were seeking a mental health and wellbeing service that understood them while meeting their needs for wider support and advice in a clinical manner.

It is 10 years since the Scottish Government, supported by Standard Life, established the Scottish veterans fund, which has provided more than £1.3 million of funding to charities and organisations, supporting more than 150 projects. The Scottish veterans fund goes a long way to supporting initiatives to improve employment opportunities and to help veterans transition after serving, not least in my constituency and across Edinburgh. The funding awards that were made earlier this year are supporting some of the sterling organisations and projects for veterans across the Lothians.

One of those organisations is Support in Mind Scotland, which has been awarded £29,000 from the fund to develop the veterans community cafe at the Stafford centre over the next two years. With the help of SVF funding over the past year, the cafe has been able to open weekly on Wednesday evenings at the Stafford centre. Veterans and their families are welcome for hot drinks, hot food and a chat, as well as tai chi and meditation if they wish.

That focus on community and wellbeing is also at the core of the Lothian Veterans Centre, which is another organisation that benefits from SVF funding. It has been going since 2009, with an aim first and foremost of creating a welcoming and friendly environment and providing person-centred support for ex-service personnel and their families from across Edinburgh and the Lothians. The charity provides important information, advice and support on health, employment, training and housing, which are the areas where we know that veterans require the most assistance.

Although I thank the Scottish Government for that funding, we know that funding for veterans charities comes from a wide range of funders and individuals. I want to take a moment to mention Tom Gilzean, who it was recently reported is within touching distance of hitting his target of collecting £1 million for a range of charities. Tom is a well-known face in Edinburgh. He is a veteran, and has been collecting funds for his favourite charities for 22 years, mainly around the Princes Street area. One organisation that has benefited from his years of collecting donations from the public is the Edinburgh personnel recovery centre, which provides residential accommodation for 12 personnel and has capacity for 15 day attendees within the grounds of the Erskine Edinburgh home. The personnel recovery centre is managed entirely by Army personnel who are responsible for the welfare and recovery of the resident soldiers.

Homelessness is an issue that affects many veterans. We are all aware that homelessness has a huge impact on people’s health and wellbeing. I greatly appreciate the Scottish Government’s determination on the issue and its commitment to provide funding to Scottish Veterans’ Residences to deliver affordable rental homes for former armed forces members and their families as well as delivering for those in need of temporary accommodation. In addition, the Scottish Government provides funding to the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association and gives priority access to veterans who wish to own their home and who require assistance through the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers.

Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee found that, at this time of housing crisis across the UK, the Ministry of Defence has 10,000 empty service family homes—that is 20 per cent of the total lying empty. The committee also found that the number of empty homes across the UK has remained unchanged in 21 years. In Scotland, there are 1,000 empty MOD homes and, in Edinburgh, 169 are lying empty, many of which are in my constituency. Would it not be helpful to homeless veterans, especially those who feel isolated, if the MOD allowed them to be housed on a temporary basis in those empty homes before they were moved on to a permanent tenancy of their own?

Supporting our service personnel and their families is a commitment that we all share, which must not end when they stop serving.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

During the summer recess, I was invited to attend the military tattoo at Edinburgh castle. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I have had the privilege of witnessing that spectacle before. Given that I was invited in my then role as convener of the Education and Skills Committee by Colonel Gibson of the Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, as part of the year of young people, I sent a member of my staff, because I was interested in all the good work being carried out by and for young people across Scotland.

Members might be thinking that this debate is in support of those who have retired from their military career, not those who are just learning the ropes, but it is not every day that I take part in a military debate in the chamber, so I wanted to take the opportunity to thank all the volunteers who work with cadets to provide them with a positive destination and tools for life. Many of the volunteers are veterans or servicemen and women themselves. This is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the wonderful work that is being done and to highlight the importance of veterans in general society.

The armed forces are complex and varied organisations. Men and women join up to the Army, air force or navy, where the variety of roles can be quite staggering. Within each of those organisations is a complex network of roles, from cooks to engineers and military police to medics. The skills learned are not just vital to the defence of the country but the foundations for a transferable skills set that can only benefit Scotland when those retiring from service use them in our economy and public services.

That is why I whole-heartedly welcome this debate on how Scotland welcomes and provides for those who served their country. I have been aware for some time of the plight of servicemen and women who suffer from homelessness after leaving the armed forces, which my colleague Gordon MacDonald has just talked about. I worked closely with a number of veterans when they were based in Cathcart old parish church in my constituency. I remember Keith Brown visiting when he was the veterans minister. I saw and heard for myself the toll that forces life—and leaving that life—can take on individuals who are trying to reintegrate into mainstream society.

Research shows that ex-armed-forces personnel are more likely to be homeless than the rest of the population, with debt, mental health problems and life-changing issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder being contributing factors.

Having been a board member of a housing association while I was a councillor—and knowing how helpful they generally try to be—I decided to write to every housing association in my home city of Glasgow to ask what provision they are making for Scotland’s veterans community. Although they were varied, the responses were very encouraging. If any member for Glasgow, or any member for a constituency or region further afield, thinks that it might be helpful to see some of those responses in order to use the information in their constituency, they should please contact my office, because they are available. I wish that I had time to share every response, but, as I said, the responses are available for any member, or indeed any veteran, who wishes to see them.

Some housing associations have no definitive policies for the housing and support of veterans but have promised to conduct a policy review, which I was encouraged to hear. Others have more proactive procedures in place, such as Link Housing Association, which stated:

“We recognise the challenges faced by people leaving or being discharged from the armed forces, and will be guided by the recommendations in the Scottish Government’s ‘Social housing allocations: a practice guide’ and will ensure that when we assess applications from ex-service personnel we will

  • Give consideration to injured ex-service personnel who require adapted housing as a result of their injury/disability
  • Not impose residency or local connection criteria which may disadvantage ex-service personnel from fair and equal access to housing and
  • Be mindful of and supportive to the needs of ex-service personnel wives/widowers/civil partners whose spouse is killed in action or dies before discharge date”.

The response from Glasgow Housing Association was by far the most encouraging of all. After responding to my letter and discussing with the chief executive of Wheatley Group, Martin Armstrong, how we could move things forward, GHA has now set aside 10 homes per year for the specific purpose of being available for former armed forces personnel. In an interview in the

Evening Times

, Mr Armstrong said:

“we’ve always given as much support as we can to help veterans settle back into civilian life, including with their housing. But we thought that the idea to support people coming out of the armed forces by setting aside a guaranteed number of homes”— as suggested by me—

“was a good one. We are delighted to ear-mark 10 homes a year to help.”

I would like to thank Mr Armstrong not only for listening to my request to help but for setting out a standard of support for our veterans, which I hope will be replicated across this country as far as each and every housing association is able. I appreciate that GHA is a particularly large organisation and that not all associations will be able to do the things that it can because of its size. If we want to encourage retired armed forces personnel to make Scotland their home, then it is imperative that they have the very basic right to a roof over their head.

A nurse who is a retired servicewoman gave us an insight into how difficult it is to re-engage on civvy street. Captain Catherine Philip works in a voluntary role with veterans now and has a personal hand in supporting many former military personnel. She told us:

“Most vets when they leave the armed forces work as nurses, join the police, work in prisons ... vets feel a need to care and give back. We would stop at the scene of an accident and give help because that’s how were trained. We will try things we have never tried before because our training tells us that’s how we will learn.”

The words of Captain Philip, or Cathy as she insisted on being called, tell us why the motion is so important and why we must continue to do our best for those who have served in our defence forces, who then use their skills for the betterment of society. Our veterans ask very little of us in return and want to contribute in a meaningful way to the fabric of Scotland. It is not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of society. Captain Cathy Philip says:

“if you want a job done well, then employ a veteran”.

Those are very wise words.

I want to finish by recognising that we are in the centenary of the end of world war one. Those of you who are just a wee bit older than me—that is probably only Stewart Stevenson—will remember the words of Lloyd George, who said that veterans should be returning to “homes fit for heroes”. Let us house our heroes, use their skills and begin to pay them back for what they have given us.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate and pay tribute to those who have put their lives on the line in the service of our country. Like many members, I recognise that, with the best will in the world, we will from time to time need to send our service personnel to fight on our behalf. In such circumstances, we have an absolute obligation to look after them and their families, to the highest possible standard.

As a much younger man, back in 1958, during the formative years of the NHS, I saw the problems that were caused by a backlog of second world war veterans who had not been properly cared for. I had been stupid enough to play around with explosives, at the expense of my left hand. In an ironic twist, this was a few months after I had been accepted to RAF Cranwell to train as a fighter pilot—given my subsequent track record of accidents it probably saved the public a lot of money. During my recovery period at Roehampton hospital, I witnessed a multitude of veterans from the second world war, who had still not received their artificial limbs, being bussed in and out daily to attend non-existent appointments. They repeated the process day in, day out, starting in the early hours and returning unseen, disappointed and late. It was degrading.

As a young teenager, I was shocked and astounded by the situation, which led to my very first political action: organising a wheelchair protest march across Roehampton Lane in London. Eventually, we made the evening papers and a junior minister was dispatched to quell the riot. In the end, things got a little better. We now have our health service, which can provide a better service.

Fortunately, the care that we provide to veterans has improved significantly since then. I am very pleased that, instead of simply focusing on physical injuries, we look to help with mental health, life skills and living arrangements. However, we cannot honestly say that it is job done or the end of the story. Mental health in particular remains a real issue. My colleague Maurice Corry spoke eloquently both on the challenges that service personnel face and on the perceptions that we as a society have about the care of our veterans. We must be careful to treat them as the valued and valuable members of society that they are.

In the north-east, we have some fantastic organisations, such as the Aberdeenshire SALUTES—supporting and linking up to ex-services—project. The project tries to provide all ex-services veterans, including family members, with a single point of contact for support throughout the local area. Such ventures can be vital for members of our veteran community, many of whom can be unaware of the support that they can get, or have subsequent trouble accessing it.

With that idea in mind, I urge caution. It is great that we have third-sector organisations that are willing and able to take on those tasks, and we are well served by more than 300 veterans charities that operate across Scotland. However, the public sector can do better. In the north-east, we were extremely disappointed to see our local veterans first point centre in Aberdeen close last year, after a funding shortfall. Of all the things that we can seemingly find money for, this would seem to me to be an obvious choice, and I urge ministers to look into the situation again in the run-up to the forthcoming budget.

Of course, the other prominent issue in this debate is housing. Too often we see ex-service personnel struggling to find somewhere to live. We see it on the streets of nearly every city, and it should shame us. We have had initiatives at the Scottish and UK level that are designed to help veterans find a home, but we are not yet at a point at which that is being communicated effectively to those who are in need. Anything that we can do in that respect would go a long way.

I firmly believe that those who put themselves forward to defend our country and the ideals and values that it represents deserve the very best support we have to offer. I recognise that a lot is being done, but we can do better. That is what we should resolve to do, and in doing so, we should co-operate to give back to our veterans and their families for the great service they have done for us.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I declare that I am a northern area committee member of the Highland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, and in that role I am happy to support reservists, many of whom are former servicemen. I noted James Dornan’s reference to the cadets, who play a valuable role, often under the leadership of former service personnel and who work with young people across Scotland and the UK.

The Highland RFCA covers approximately one quarter of the landmass of the United Kingdom, extending north from the Forth and Clyde valley to encompass the whole of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of meeting the Defence Medical Welfare Service, which Brian Whittle referred to. That is a fantastic organisation that, since 1943, has given support to more than 1 million patients and their families. I was greatly impressed by the work that has been done by that organisation and by many others. It was a privilege to hear many of its stories on Tuesday.

The backdrop to all this was well illustrated when, in May 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” after witnessing the death of his friend the day before:

“We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.”

That illustrates the experience of service personnel and it should be no surprise that that experience can lead to people having needs after they have served in the forces; we are addressing those needs today and will have to address them for a long time. The poem has echoed down the 100-plus years since it was written, and is the reason why we wear a little red poppy on armistice day. As I said in my intervention on the minister, we approach the 100-year anniversary of the armistice, not the end of the conflict, and we should celebrate that. We have seen many memorial services and preparations to honour those who fought in that great conflict, and the great sacrifices that they made.

In my life, I have been fortunate enough to travel to many corners of the world, in many of which one sees the imperial war graves. When I was in Burma, some 40 years ago, the only thing that seemed to work effectively was the graveyard outside of Rangoon, where every blade of grass was within a millimetre of its neighbour, where the book of remembrance was pristine and where the memorial was excellent. Nothing else in that country worked properly, so it was great to see such dedication.

A week ago in my constituency, the community came together for the rededication of a memorial marking the commencement of the war. Bands played, prayers were given, and scriptures and poems were recited, including the poem that I just quoted. The Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire, Clare Russell, said:

“The dedication will in no way glorify war or mark any kind of celebration of what was one of the darkest moments in the history of mankind. Rather it will be an occasion for people to remember and to work for peace.”

It was a truly intergenerational tribute, as members of the Royal British Legion stood alongside uniformed youth organisations. That happened around Scotland, which indicates the respect and regard that we have for our veterans.

I am proud that we have taken the steps that we have in Scotland. Other nations in these islands equally respect our veterans, but they support them in different ways and they could learn a little bit from the way that we do it.

Gordon MacDonald referred to the Scottish veterans fund, which has supported 19 projects in the past year and continues to be an important support that is provided to veterans.

The motion before us refers to Eric Fraser, the former veterans commissioner—many members have referred to him, too—and to Colonel Charlie Wallace, our new veterans commissioner. The commissioner’s role is important, because there are something like 400,000 veterans in Scotland who have served in our armed forces at some point in their lives. Further, about 20,000 people in the UK leave our armed forces every year, and the transition to civilian life can be quite difficult for some people.

There are more than 50 veterans organisations in Scotland, which are part of the 300-plus charities that Maurice Corry referred to. Poppy Scotland is well known to us, as is veterans first point. Those organisations, often working with the Scottish Government, are integral to what we do.

The Scottish veterans commissioner’s report described testimony from John Johnston, a veteran and a research project officer at Borders general hospital, who was helped by veterans first point. John stated:

“The whole ethos of veterans first point is that they go the extra mile for everyone who accesses the service. They helped me get out of the house and meet with likeminded people which ultimately is the reason I am still here today.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is just closing.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

John Johnston continued:

“Even once you’ve finished treatment or completed a programme ... it never closes its doors on you.”

My personal connections are modest. I inform James Dornan that my father knew a—but not the—Lloyd George. He was my father’s election agent when he stood for the rectorship of Edinburgh university. However, his cousin was in Lloyd George’s Government during the first world war and was ennobled by Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There is no holding you back, Mr Stevenson.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I have always acknowledged that Stewart Stevenson has had multiple careers, but I did not realise that he is as old as the hills and can remember back to whenever it was.

It gives me great pleasure to close on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party. As other members have, I thank Keith Brown for his service as a minister, particularly in the policy area that is under debate. We have not always agreed on every policy area, but on this one we certainly have. I also welcome Graeme Dey and Clare Haughey to their new ministerial posts.

I am the deputy convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community. I know my role—it is to keep Maurice Corry in check, which I fail miserably at, I am happy to say.

I welcome the many veterans and serving personnel who have been in the gallery today and I thank them, as others have done, for all their service to the country. We are very grateful to them.

As my constituency is now probably home to most of our armed forces personnel, I am particularly interested in how provision is made across a range of services—health, housing, education and employment, to name but four. I will not have time to do all of them justice in six minutes—I am being told that I now have seven minutes, so I will certainly try—but I hope to have a positive dialogue in the future with the new Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, Graeme Dey, so he will not get off lightly.

The focus of today’s debate has been access to health services—in particular mental health services, which have been mentioned by almost every speaker. I, too, welcome the work that was done by Eric Fraser, Scotland’s first commissioner for veterans, on health and wellbeing, and I welcome the new commissioner, Charlie Wallace, to his post. I look forward to working with him in the future.

In considering mental health, I reference the work that was done by the Forces in Mind Trust with its report “Call to Mind: Scotland”, which was published at this time of year two years ago. Its review of mental health services for veterans praised the work that had been carried out in Scotland and the commitment of professionals to do more, but it also identified critical gaps. In a series of some 16 recommendations, it signposted key areas for improvement.

The report from the veterans commissioner very helpfully builds on that early work, and some of the recommendations not surprisingly cover similar areas for improvement. This afternoon, members from across the chamber have covered some of those recommendations, and I welcome many of the comments that the Minister for Mental Health made in her opening speech, but I want to push just a little more. We know what the problem is, and some of the solutions have been suggested in the recommendations in the two reports. What we need is an implementation and monitoring framework that says who is responsible for each action, when it will be achieved and, importantly, how much resource will be attached.

I welcome the global figures that the minister outlined earlier, but it would be useful to tease out what applies to veterans and which health boards are providing which services. I hope that she will take the time to look at that. I am keen—I am sure that the ambition is shared across the chamber—that the Government walks the walk and makes that a reality.

To stick to one local thing, I support Maurice Corry’s suggestion about a specialist mental health unit at the Vale of Leven hospital. It is disappointing that the MOD does not appear to be interested in that, but I hope that the minister, Clare Haughey, might be persuaded.

I turn briefly to housing, which was touched on by other members. I am very conscious that there are veterans who leave the forces and end up being homeless, whether through lack of preparation before they leave the service or through inability to cope with life on civvy street. Homelessness can and should be prevented, but the numbers are going the wrong way. I ask the minister to take a look at what more can be done in prevention.

I will move on to education, which I do not think anybody else has raised. I want to mention two specific issues—first, the service pupil premium that is provided for pastoral care by the Department for Education in England, and secondly the MOD education support fund. The service children premium is not available in Scotland and is not part of the criteria for pupil equity funding. That is disappointing, given the concentration of forces families in some local authority areas.

The education support fund started life in 2011 with £3 million, then it grew to £6 million in 2014, which was welcome, but for the next two years it will have budgets of £3 million and £2 million. I welcome its continuation by the UK Government, but I am disappointed that the numbers are going the wrong way. Scotland appears to have received above-average funding from that route, which is great. It has helped to deliver support activities in local authorities that have large clusters of service children in their schools, providing help during what we know are stressful periods of relocation and deployment separation.

I want to make a positive suggestion to the minister. Instead of short-term project funding, how about having a Scottish service pupil premium that would deliver sustainable and long-term support, which would allow schools and local authorities to plan better? I am told that stress and its consequences have already been legislated for in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 and are also part of getting it right for every child. That is very welcome, but it needs to be properly funded. The current formula does not take the needs of service children into account. I hope that the minister will consider the matter. I encourage him to do so and to report back to Parliament at a future date.

Finally, let me turn briefly to employment. Much work is going on to ensure that veterans are supported into employment, but there is more to do on training and transition. I welcome the focus on employment, but I also want to mention the important role that military spouses play. They perform a critical role in supporting our servicemen and women, but their huge array of skills is going unrecognised, and they struggle to find work in places around our military bases. As it does in Maurice Corry’s area, in Helensburgh in my area, Recruit for Spouses is doing great work to open doors for military spouses and to use their skills and talents to benefit the local economy. I hope to see more of that. Like Mr Corry, I recently attended in Parliament a photographic exhibition by Wendy Faux, called “Not Just a Wife”. It illustrated, in pictures and stories, how absolutely inspiring each military spouse is.

I look forward to working with the new minister to make progress on all those issues in the future.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I thank Clare Haughey for bringing the motion to debate. I am very happy to support it and my party’s amendment.

At the outset, I ought to declare that, like Maurice Corry, Keith Brown, Mike Rumbles and Mark Griffin, I am a veteran. I will not make the mistake, as I did the last time that we had a debate on this issue, of saying that we were all soldiers together, because Keith Brown rapidly corrected me then to say that he was a marine. I am a veteran of the Blues and Royals, which is the regiment in which my son now serves.

I take this opportunity to thank Eric Fraser for the energy and dedication that he brought to his role as Scotland’s first veterans commissioner. I would like to welcome his successor, Charlie Wallace—another veteran—to his role, and I am sure that he will bring the same passion to supporting our veterans as Eric Fraser did.

In closing the debate, I would like to mention one or two points that have been brought up today that I consider to be important. Maurice Corry talked about isolation, but I say to him that it is not just ex-service personnel who can feel isolated—families and partners can, too. On being discharged, service personnel and their families are no longer part of the tight-knit community that they are used to. That can give rise to loneliness and sometimes, in the case of the ex-serving personnel, a feeling of being worthless. We need to ensure that their skills, which are numerous, allow those people to become part of new teams and worthwhile members of the new communities that they join.

Maurice Corry made it clear that we need partnerships between Government and charitable welfare organisations to support veterans, and I agree whole-heartedly. Brian Whittle built on that. He spoke about how difficult it is on one day to be part of a small, committed and dedicated team and, on the next, to feel cast adrift. Those are wise words. However, although some find transition difficult, others find it easy. Tom Mason spoke about the obligation to look after veterans and their families. He said that the job is not done until it is complete, and that we have to do more—I agree. Mark Griffin highlighted the debt of gratitude that Scotland owes to members of all our armed forces and their families. Again, I agree. Mike Rumbles stressed the need for early intervention and for appropriate medical care to be made available. Keith Brown spoke about the great importance of armed forces champions. Angela Constance spoke about the need for a team Scotland approach to our veterans, which is absolutely right. Alex Rowley said that when it comes to veterans we must never leave anyone behind, which is an excellent summary of the position. We never should, and we never will. Gordon MacDonald spoke of the need for specialist medical and mental health services for veterans who need them. He also spoke about homelessness—which I will come back to—and why veterans should never be without a roof over their head. James Dornan spoke about the part played in volunteering by veterans, who bring from the services a great transferable skills set. Stewart Stevenson talked about how reservists contribute to the armed services, and how they should not be overlooked when we talk about the subject. Jackie Baillie spoke about the need to identify those who need help and what we should do to help them, and I agree with her.

I want to talk briefly about homeless veterans. I agree that addressing the issue is vital, and we could do more to use unused married quarters for veterans. It is a good idea. I know that it is something that the services have struggled with, because as units are posted in and out of areas of Scotland they must have quarters available for the families, and it is difficult to know how many of those quarters will be needed at any stage. However, I believe that it is an idea that we should look at more, and it is an issue that is not too difficult to solve, so we should be able to balance the current use of army quarters against future use. We could work cross party to come to a solution on that.

One of the things that was mentioned by the previous veterans commissioner is the need to identify people who need help early. I stress that we should never forget those people who leave the services earlier than they planned to. Those are the people who feel most vulnerable and often need our help, so we should be finding ways of monitoring those people, looking at them and identifying early on when they need help, before they actually ask for it.

It is clear to me—and, I think, to everyone in the chamber—that veterans and their families require support at all stages of their life. I have to mention something that I mention every time that we talk about veterans, which is protection from legacy investigations. Members may remember that I recounted the story of Dennis Hutchings in the chamber at the end of last year, and I would like to remind those in the chamber today of his story, because brave veterans who have put their lives on the line to defend the country are still being hounded in their retirement and dragged through the courts to face accusations that have already been investigated and closed.

Dennis Hutchings, a former life guard, is just one of many of ex-soldiers in that position. He served in Northern Ireland during the troubles and is facing legal action. After two initial investigations, he was told that the matter was closed. However, he is now being charged with attempted murder, despite there being no evidence, no living witnesses and the loss of key forensic evidence. I do not believe that that is right. As parliamentarians, we must fulfil our basic duty to our veterans by protecting them from the witch hunts that are going on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I caution you, Mr Mountain. So far, what you have said has been okay, but we must watch what we say if there are live court proceedings. I think that sufficient has been said. Let us put it like that.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

I hope that the member is not suggesting that, because somebody was in the armed forces or is a veteran, they should therefore be immune from prosecution for anything that occurred while they were in the forces.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I would be happier, for the reasons that I have just expounded, that we do not pursue that particular area. You have made your point, Mr Dornan, and I think that Mr Mountain should continue with his speech, bearing in mind my cautionary words.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I very much take that point, and I would like to say that I absolutely believe that everyone should be held accountable for their actions. However,

90 per cent of the population will have little idea what it is like to face split-second decisions during combat, knowing that inaction could cost lives. Thankfully, most of us have not had to face that.

Moving forward, I would like to encourage the Scottish veterans commissioner, the Scottish Government and members of this Parliament to look at those Scottish veterans who face legacy investigations and ask whether, in service of their country, they have done enough to avoid being hounded for actions 40 years ago.

The Scottish Conservatives support the on-going work of the Scottish Government in repaying our debt to our Scottish veterans, and we look forward to seeing Charlie Wallace building on the excellent work of the previous commissioner. I also look forward to working with the new minister with responsibility for veterans affairs. If he is supporting our veterans, I will do everything that I can to help.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Graeme Dey to close for the Government.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Let me begin by thanking members for their contributions to the debate, which is one that has served to remind us that many MSPs from across the political spectrum have a close personal interest in our armed forces community.

The role of veterans minister is one that I am delighted and honoured to take on. In the three months between my being appointed and this, my first debate in the role, I visited a range of organisations and employers that support veterans, met veterans ranging in age and situation, and had many conversations with them, which gave me helpful insights and ideas about where the Government needs to focus.

It has all been extremely helpful, because my job is to build on the work that Keith Brown did to improve the lives of and support for members of our armed forces and veterans community in Scotland. It was excellent work, including the creation of the veterans commissioner post and the redevelopment of the Scottish veterans fund. I join Jackie Baillie, Maurice Corry and Mark Griffin in recognising that.

I welcome the helpful pointers in the contributions of a number of colleagues today. Maurice Corry noted the role of local health and social care partnerships in delivering services. I agree with him. They are pivotal to the delivery of long-term sustainable services and I expect them to deliver in a way that reflects veterans’ priorities and the military covenant commitments.

Angela Constance noted the work of Scottish War Blinded. When I attended its annual conference, I was struck by the incredibly positive view that users had of the support that is afforded them by that organisation.

Brian Whittle highlighted the work of Hollybush house, which I visited recently. He is correct about the great work that is done there by Combat Stress. In acknowledging that, I note the partnership working that has gone on between Combat Stress and NHS Ayrshire and Arran. The analogy that he drew between athletics and the armed forces was thought provoking and I think that it will have resonated with the veterans present.

Alex Rowley, in another thoughtful and considered contribution, touched on the data gathering issue. I am not in a position to greatly expand on what I said to him in our exchange of letters but, for the benefit of other members, I say that the Government is looking at how information that is held on the NHS central register might be transferable to the Information Services Division, in order that we can improve the collection of data on veterans who have contact with NHS mental health services. Once established, that information can be used not only to track the tragedies that at times occur but to highlight those who are at risk and identify what support they might need. There is a lot of potential there, and I welcome Alex Rowley’s interest in that subject.

Gordon MacDonald and James Dornan offered some interesting ideas on housing. I acknowledge James Dornan’s efforts to secure the commitment of GHA to provide 10 houses annually specifically for service personnel.

There were a number of other welcome contributions. Jackie Baillie set me a series of challenges. I will not have the time to respond to her in detail, but I, too, look forward to engaging in them—I think.

One of the first tasks that I embarked on in government was to undertake a range of discussions with my ministerial colleagues to ensure that we have a whole-of-Government approach to supporting our armed forces community. I am pleased to say that, across areas such as health, housing and employability, the response has been entirely positive. We will be working closely together, and potentially with other colleagues in the years ahead, to improve and refine the support that is on offer to our veterans.

Partnership working across the public, private and charitable sectors is also key here, and the role that is played by armed forces champions in local authorities remains crucial. I am committed to strengthening our network of champions in local authorities as well as other public bodies, and working in genuine partnership with them.

As well as updating Parliament, the debate has provided an opportunity to welcome our new veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, to his post and to thank Eric Fraser for his work over the past four years. I echo the earlier words of thanks to him from around the chamber, and I note in particular Eric Fraser’s work to change perceptions and ensure we see veterans as assets. That has been incredibly important.

This week, the Scottish Government published “Scottish Government Support for Veterans and the Armed Forces Community in Scotland”, which sets out some of what we have delivered but also highlights the actions that we are taking to look across ministerial portfolios at service delivery in order to identify and understand areas for improvement.

The needs of veterans are likely to change in the years ahead as we see a shift in the demographics of the veterans population, so it is right that we consider how we need to adapt to that.

As part of reviewing our service provision and in keeping with the partnership approach that I touched on earlier, we are working with the Ministry of Defence and other devolved Administrations on a new veterans strategy.

We are extremely aware that accurate data and better identification at the point of referral are essential if we are to develop a clearer picture of needs, so I am delighted to confirm a positive outcome to the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland’s count them in campaign, which Angela Constance spoke about. Earlier today, the National Records of Scotland set out the current plans for the 2021 census, which include a new question to provide robust statistics on the size, location and profile of our veterans population in Scotland. I know that that plan will be welcomed widely and that it will help us, along with our partner organisations, to develop and improve services. The final decision will lie with the Scottish Parliament, but I can advise members that, subject to the legislative agenda, a draft order will be laid in late 2019.

However, we are also aware that easy access to the right information is vital for the armed forces community, particularly for those who are transitioning out of the services or moving to Scotland for the first time. Over the past year, the Government has continued to improve how we provide information about services that are available. For example, in June we published the “Welcome to Scotland” guide. Information was a key recommendation in the commissioner’s housing report, and this year we published an updated version of the housing guide, redesigned to improve its content, visual impact and accessibility. I continue to work with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning on how we can better address and prevent homelessness among our veterans population.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I welcome the minister’s comments. In relation to MOD housing, I have had some success with the Royal Navy at Faslane, where we have moved families around. There is an open door and an opportunity. If the minister would like to discuss how I did it, I am more than happy to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There is an invitation for the minister—you can answer, please.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

That is another invitation to engage, and I will take that offer up.

The veterans employability strategic group is progressing our engagement on employability and it continues to take forward the veterans commissioner’s previous recommendations, including work placements and the accreditation and mapping of military skills into the civilian workplace. Earlier today, I was pleased to launch a veterans employability concordat with key partners on the veterans employability strategic group, which sets out our enduring partnership arrangement to support those who are transitioning from the armed forces into fulfilling civilian careers. We are also accelerating opportunities to create business workspaces near military bases to help those who want to develop their own businesses.

We are lucky to have a strong veterans charitable sector here in Scotland, and I have already had the opportunity to meet Veterans Scotland, Poppyscotland, Legion Scotland and many others that are delivering great support. The Scottish Government continues to support veterans organisation and charities directly through the Scottish veterans fund. Those projects and initiatives provide essential support to our veterans community. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the veterans fund, with more than £1.3 million given to more than 150 projects throughout Scotland.

Looking to the future, I can say that our focus will continue to be on working positively and collaboratively across Government and more widely with the charitable and private sectors to champion our armed forces community. There are great examples of support for veterans throughout local authorities in Scotland and I am keen to see that best practice shared widely. I am also keen that we continue to see cross-party support, both here and more locally, on delivering for veterans.

Today’s debate shows that MSPs, in the main, are capable of taking that approach, and I acknowledge and welcome that. We know that we lead the way in many areas here in Scotland, but it is right that we take stock in order to maximise efficiency and adapt to changing needs. My ministerial colleagues and I, along with other members, remain committed to providing the best possible levels of support for veterans, both now and in the future.