Veterans Strategy (Update)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Graham Dey on an update on the veterans strategy. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Last November, I informed Parliament of the launch of the strategy for our veterans. The strategy seeks to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom is meeting its current and future commitments to veterans to 2028 and beyond.

The Scottish Government engaged closely with the other Governments of these islands during the drafting of the strategy, enabling it to be owned jointly by the respective Administrations. Of course, that approach puts veterans’ needs before any political differences, and is in keeping with that taken here in this Parliament.

The launch raised the profile of veterans issues and provided an opportunity for the Scottish Government to highlight the priority that we place on promoting veterans and their families as assets to our society and on providing effective support to those veterans who need it.

Since becoming Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans last year, one of my priorities has been to seek to reinforce the positive narrative about veterans and to dispel myths around the scale of their needs. Although a small percentage will require additional and sometimes on-going support when they leave the forces, the vast majority of service leavers transition successfully to civilian life, bringing their unique skills and attributes to bear, both in the jobs that they go on to do and, more generally, in enriching society.

In December, members debated the strategy and support for veterans, and I was struck by the cross-party consensus and the constructive input from colleagues from all sides of the chamber. As we have taken the strategy forward, I have been grateful to members for continuing that productive approach.

Today, I will update Parliament on the work that has been undertaken in Scotland since that launch. In parallel with the UK Government’s public consultation on the strategy, which concluded in February, in Scotland, we embarked on an extensive programme of face-to-face engagements with veterans stakeholders.

Building on work that the Scottish veterans commissioner had already carried out on some of the strategy’s themes, we talked directly to around 60 different veterans groups and organisations, taking in more than 450 people—a process that proved to be valuable in understanding views in Scotland about how our veterans community is supported.

During the consultation, I was keen to leave no stone unturned. The breadth of our engagements ensured that we heard a wide range of opinions, including those of charities, local authorities, health representatives, employers, universities and the forces families federations. We also met many veterans groups in places such as Kinloss and Lossiemouth in the north, down to Dumfries and Galloway, and from Faslane through to Rosyth.

I was pleased to participate personally in many of the consultation events. That allowed me not just to learn what was said but to get a genuine sense of the emotion and strength of feeling that lay behind some of the views that were expressed.

A range of views were put to me directly from veterans champions across the country, charities large and small, groups of veterans whose breakfast clubs I attended and the veterans in custody to whom I spoke when I visited HM Prison Glenochil. Their views proved invaluable in helping me understand what people think. Veterans are rarely backward in coming forward, which has been a good thing.

The consultation that has been undertaken on the veterans strategy provides the most comprehensive feedback that has ever been gathered on support for veterans in Scotland, and it provides a firm footing on which to plan for the future. The UK Government is in the process of analysing the 4,500 responses that we received in response to the public consultation, including around 400 from Scotland, and it hopes to have initial findings ready to share with us in the next few weeks. Allowing for the analysis to be completed, current plans are for the Governments across the UK to announce jointly the outcomes of the strategy by the end of this calendar year.

Meanwhile, we have been considering the feedback that we gathered during our consultation. Today, I will outline some headlines that we will consider further with relevant stakeholders.

At a constructive meeting of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community last night, I was reassured that many points that I heard chimed with the feedback that we had during the consultation. The consultation indicates a largely positive position in Scotland on how we support our veterans community. Yes, in some areas, a need for improvement has been highlighted, but often that will be a tailoring of approach, rather than a radical rethink.

It is interesting that a large amount of the feedback from the consultation was around the transition process, in which service leavers are prepared for civilian life. Given the fundamental importance of a successful transition if service personnel and their families are to adjust and thrive after life in the military, there were common views that the process needed to begin earlier, broaden the aspects of civilian life that are covered and have more consistent support from the military chain of command. Although the transition process is reserved, the Ministry of Defence is keen to hear what veterans in Scotland have been telling us. I will discuss that with members of the UK Government, including the Secretary of State for Defence, when I attend the ministerial covenant and veterans board in Whitehall next month.

The feedback has indicated a desire to simplify and improve the information and guidance that is available to veterans. A lot of excellent support is available, but the range of options can be daunting for some people, and we are exploring how we can make it easier for them to find the information that they need.

Many of the organisations that we spoke to highlighted the need to prioritise better data on veterans in order to inform plans and expected demand. There was a universal welcoming of a question in the 2021 census that will identify those who have previously served. Although the final decision on that still remains for Parliament, I am grateful that colleagues across the chamber have indicated their support for that proposal.

Many of the other areas identified for improvement are already being addressed in response to previous reports by our Scottish veterans commissioner, whose latest work I will touch on in a moment.

The positive picture suggested by the consultation reinforces the value of the decision made by my predecessor, Keith Brown, to establish a veterans commissioner in Scotland—a role that remains the only such position in the United Kingdom. It also reflects well on the more general work that Keith did in his role. We should rightly take comfort in the initial findings of the consultation, and I thank the relevant ministers and officials from the various portfolios for getting us to this position. We now need to address the serious work of making improvements where we can, to ensure that support for the veterans community remains effective for the next 10 years and beyond.

That brings me to the report published yesterday by the veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, who is in the public gallery today. When the commissioner and I first met last year, after we had both taken up our posts, I was keen to discuss with him how the scrutiny function of his role could be fulfilled. Therefore, I am pleased to see such an in-depth analysis of where progress has been made since the 63 recommendations of the previous commissioner, Eric Fraser, were published in his four reports—on transition, housing, employability and skills, and health and wellbeing—and where we still have more to do.

Charlie Wallace’s report paints a positive picture overall of the progress made and the attitude of this Government towards supporting our veterans and their families. As part of his work leading up to the publication of the report, Charlie had face-to-face meetings with a number of my ministerial colleagues, and I am pleased that the report emphasises the cross-Government commitment to the veterans community. However, I recognise that a few of the recommendations have still to be implemented. Most of those sit within health, which was the subject of Eric Fraser’s most recent report, and it is therefore understandable that they have been less fully progressed.

On other recommendations, we can point to progress. For example, we have recently established an internal network for the armed forces community in the Scottish Government. One of the aims of that group is to provide increased support for ex-service personnel who work in the Scottish Government and others who are interested in the armed forces community. It will also help to inform our approach to future recruitment, although it is, of course, the case that being a veteran is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. We hope that that work begins to address the recommendation concerning jobs in the Scottish Government.

It is clear that, in the year ahead, we must continue to prioritise work to support veterans, working closely with our stakeholders and partners to both fully meet the challenges identified by the veterans commissioner and the consultation on the veterans strategy and take forward the consultation’s findings. I look forward to doing that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow 20 minutes for that.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. The strategy for our veterans identified employment, education and skills, and making a home in civilian society among its key themes. Those would be addressed, at least partly, by improving employment routes for veterans into emergency services and criminal justice roles. The creation of the four science parks in Helensburgh, Lossiemouth, Rosyth and Edinburgh is also relevant to this issue. What discussions has the Scottish Government had about those roles and what is the progress in development of the science parks?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Maurice Corry has raised that issue previously. The Scottish Government is prepared to explore any viable opportunities to improve post-service employment, and the opportunities for military spouses to enter the workplace in order to retain skills in the local area. The proposal for such an innovation hub located in the proximity of Faslane or any other base would require active buy-in from stakeholders including the MOD, along with other local partners. I am aware that Helensburgh community council has been working with local veterans and other community groups to develop a proposal for the creation of a co-working hub for use by both the civil and the service communities and that Argyll and Bute Council has sight of that.

We would be happy to engage with that, but we need to see MOD buy-in. I would like to see some commitment from the MOD, with a view to seeing how we could progress the proposal.

As well as looking to tap into the skill set of serving personnel in those locations, it is important that we look at the spouses’ skills that are available. We are currently missing that.

I agree that the proposal about the emergency services is an opportunity.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

I am grateful to the minister for early sight of his statement. I am pleased to hear about the continued joint work to support veterans across the UK. A week after the D-day commemorations, I would like to put on record Labour’s thanks to our armed forces personnel—past, present and future—for their service and for protecting Scotland and the UK.

How is the Scottish Government balancing the need to retain personnel in our armed forces and maintain their numbers with the need to create realistic and meaningful pathways into civilian employment for veterans? Specifically, how many veterans have been supported, from referral to sustained employment, by the work first and fair start employability services?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

First, I associate myself with Mark Griffin’s comments at the outset of the question that he posed, which is an important one. I do not believe that addressing the retention issues that the Army, in particular, faces, on the one hand, and improving the transition experience and pathways to rewarding employment, on the other, somehow run contrary to each other. Indeed, I argue that the latter can help to address the former. For example, serving personnel sometimes leave the military early because they are dissatisfied and think that the grass might be greener on the civilian side. Some then discover that finding enjoyable, well-paid work is not as simple as they thought. If we, in partnership with the MOD, the career transition partnership and employers from the public and private sectors, can improve routes into employment that is financially rewarding and satisfying, we will be better able to point to how skills accrued during service can transfer into civilian opportunities. I hope that that would demonstrate the worth of remaining in the services for longer than is sometimes currently the case. I should add that I am currently finding a willingness on the part of the Army in Scotland to work with us on that, so there is a positive direction of travel there.

I do not have at my fingertips the specific numbers that Mark Griffin has asked about, but I will write to him with those.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to open questions. Brevity in both questions and answers would be appreciated.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I know that Mr Dey has visited some of our health boards in his role as minister for veterans. How will he ensure that there is an equitable level of service for veterans of all ages, in all our health board areas? He will know that I am particularly keen to ensure that services in the NHS Grampian area are up to the level that is experienced elsewhere.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I completely agree with Mike Rumbles on his point about equity of access to service. All our veterans across Scotland, regardless of where they live, should have equal access to the services that they require. That view is very much shared by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, and it is the driver for my having undertaken a series of visits across the country.

Since Mr Rumbles last raised the matter, I have met those who provide and access veterans first point services in Galashiels and Irvine. I have also visited Inverness to hear from NHS Highland’s board and local veterans about how services are provided across the Highlands and the challenges that are presented there, where they no longer have V1P. My officials have been seeking to arrange a meeting with NHS Grampian, and one is pending on that very subject. I hope that that meeting will take place during the summer recess, when I will also meet veterans’ groups in Aberdeen.

I hope that that reassures Mr Rumbles that I have taken extremely seriously his concerns on equity and ease of access. I will be more than happy to engage with him further on those.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Does the minister agee that the abject and repeated failure of the UK Government to get even close to the targets for recruitment over a lengthy period has had a direct impact on veterans, including by limiting the opportunities that service personnel have for training and taking on new roles, as well as the opportunity to decide to leave the services at a time of their choosing?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I understand and agree with the concerns that Mr Brown expresses. We were told that there would be an increase in numbers to 12,500 by 2020, but we are nowhere near to seeing that at the moment. All that I can say to Mr Brown is that I will raise the matter when I am in London at the beginning of next month.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

On 4 December 2018, I raised the appalling shame of the legacy allegations inquiry and the minister agreed to take the matter to the UK Government. Has he done so? If so, when did he do it and what was the UK Government’s response? I realise that my question concerns a matter that is not devolved.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

We tread warily on the issue, because charges have been brought and it would be inappropriate to comment on a current criminal investigation. However, there has been dialogue with the UK Government, which has centred on its plans to hold a consultation on the legal protections for armed forces personnel and veterans. Scottish Government officials have been in touch with the Ministry of Defence on the issue.

We await the detail of the UK Government’s proposals, which we will consider fully as part of the accompanying consultation process.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I know that the minister is aware of the fabulous work that is done at the Scottish War Blinded centre at Linburn in my constituency, and I hope that he will visit us some time soon. In the meantime, will he say what more can be done to signpost veterans with sight loss via the certificate of vision impairment process to services, including the fabulous service that Scottish War Blinded offers?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

With its partners, the Scottish Government introduced the certificate of vision impairment Scotland form in April 2018. We have had constructive discussions with Scottish War Blinded and are now updating the accompanying CVI guidance to expand the signposting for veterans to necessary services, including Scottish War Blinded.

I had the pleasure of visiting Scottish War Blinded’s Hawkhead centre in May and I was impressed by the facilities. I also had the pleasure of speaking at Scottish War Blinded’s annual conference. I would be delighted to visit the Linburn centre.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I welcome the specialist mental health provision and the funding that has been provided to Combat Stress and veterans first point, which a report from the veterans commissioner referred to. However, I am sure that the minister agrees that improvement is also needed in local mainstream adult mental health services, where waiting lists are far too long and 20 per cent of adults are waiting longer than the 18-week treatment time guarantee. Is that good enough? If it is not, what changes will the minister make for veterans?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

On veterans mental health services, the Government has made it extremely clear that the mental health strategy covers veterans’ issues. As Jackie Baillie said, we provide funding for Combat Stress and for addressing veterans’ needs in all mental health services.

Issues also relate to the children of veterans. As recently as yesterday, I was told that, if a youngster in a service family goes on a child and adolescent mental health services waiting list and the family then move, as often happens, the child has to go on a CAMHS waiting list elsewhere. I have undertaken to the Army Families Federation that I will look at that issue in conjunction with the Minister for Mental Health.

I hope that that reassures Jackie Baillie that we are sighted on the issue holistically.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

How does the Scottish Government ensure that veterans who receive social care get the full value of their war pensions?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I confirm that the Scottish Government continues to provide £5 million of funding each year to local authorities to ensure that all veterans who receive social care at home or in a residential home keep the full value of their war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments, which are now exempt from financial assessments. That is estimated to benefit 1,300 veterans in Scotland, who now receive the full value of their war pensions. I know that those who are affected welcome that.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

A report from veterans gateway said that financial advice is consistently one of the top three needs for people when they leave military life, and the veterans strategy said that, on leaving military life, veterans can be

“uniquely unprepared for balancing the financial demands of civilian life”.

The minister spoke of his desire to improve the information and guidance that are available to veterans when they transition into civilian life. What work is taking place to ensure that veterans have the guidance that they need and appropriate referrals to financial advice, including education when that is needed and appropriate?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Alison Johnstone is correct to highlight the issue, which has been identified before. I will answer her question in two ways. On access to education when that is required, if she means that in a broader sense, there is a piece of work going on.

On finances, I draw Alison Johnstone’s attention to a pilot project that was carried out recently at an Army base in Scotland with Barclays Bank, which does wonderful work for our veterans in a variety of ways. Barclays was seeking to provide some sort of financial training for a number of people who intended leaving the services and others. What emerged from that pilot was confirmation of the need for that training. We would be happy to work with Barclays to see whether we can roll that out. We often recruit into the Army, in particular, young men and women from poorer backgrounds whose education at the point of entry into the military is not as extensive as we might want. That includes their education in the control of money and the ability to run a household budget.

We can do a number of things here, and I commend the Army in Scotland for its willingness to engage on this sort of issue.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

How will the Scottish Government build on the “Welcome to Scotland” guide, to ensure that service personnel and their families who live in or are moving to Scotland can benefit from all that is on offer?

In that regard, does the minister share my disappointment that the decline in the defence footprint in Scotland continues apace, in breach of UK Government promises?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As I said to Keith Brown, I share that disappointment.

The “Welcome to Scotland” guide is a positive publication that highlights exactly what is on offer in Scotland. However, information is only as good as the ability to access it, and through feedback and some of the discussions that we have had beyond that, we have identified an issue around accessing the guide and its information for individuals and families who are based outwith Scotland just now. Those might be individuals who intend to return home or choose to live here.

We are doing a piece of work with the MOD, and the Army in particular, to see how we can make that guide and the information within it available to service families who intend to settle here.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

The strategy for our veterans identifies 2028 as the target date for the achievement of its key themes. That will require work across Government and other organisations. Is the Scottish Government confident in its ability to meet those targets in time?

Additionally, the minister referred to the recruitment of Scottish veterans within the Scottish Government itself. However, Charlie Wallace’s findings highlighted that as an area in which more work is needed. Will the minister set out how the Scottish Government plans to change that and lead by example?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As far as the Government is concerned, 2028 is not a target. We could do many things relatively quickly to bring about immediate improvement, and that is what we aim to do. I have no doubt about the willingness or the ability of this Government to deliver on those things.

I should also say that these things are delivered in partnership with local authorities and the veterans charitable sector in Scotland. That is one of the strengths of this country. They will also have to be delivered in partnership with the MOD. I look forward to taking our key themes forward, and I envisage being able to bring about meaningful change a lot sooner than 2028.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

With regard to ensuring the successful transition from a life in the military to civvy street, particularly the significant task of translating 1,000 separate military qualifications into recognised civilian qualifications, can the minister update members on progress on the Scottish credit and qualifications framework to ensure that qualifications obtained during a military career are recognised by civilian organisations?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Bruce Crawford raises a matter than has been raised with me directly by serving personnel. In response to one of the commissioner’s recommendations, work is being done with the SCQF partnership, funded by the Scottish Higher and Further Education Funding Council, to look at translating military qualifications into qualifications that can be quantified by civilian organisations. That is a really important piece of work to help former serving personnel get into employment.

There are more than 1,250 separate qualifications to be considered so, given the scale of the task, initial work has focused on infantry qualifications, and a guide to them and what they mean in Scotland was launched in May. The SCQF partnership will continue that work to consider other military qualifications, and I look forward to seeing significant progress in that regard.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

The minister talked about the importance of partnerships. Most local authorities have a dedicated lead officer as well as a dedicated lead politician for veterans and support for the armed forces.

What kind of co-ordination takes place? I know that, in Fife, there was previously a politician who was dedicated and committed to that role. Is there co-ordination and joined-up work between local and central Government as well as in Government?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I cite Fife Council as a good example of a local authority with a veterans champion. Councillor Rod Kavanagh does a good job in that role, which is replicated across various parts of Scotland across the political parties. To answer Alex Rowley’s specific point, we have perhaps not been as good as we ought to have been at pulling all that together and to sharing best practice. We are drawing up plans to have an event in the summer to which we will invite all the local authority champions. We will invite the services to have a round-table discussion about what service personnel and veterans require and to share best practice across local authorities so that we can have more equity in the delivery of support.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

Will the minister outline what support is available to veterans to access safe and secure housing?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Housing, and homelessness to a lesser extent, are very important issues in the context of veterans’ support. We are doing some quite good work around identifying specific housing allocations in various parts of the country. In a broader sense, since 2012, more than £4.5 million of funding from the Scottish Government’s affordable housing supply programme has been awarded to organisations to provide new homes and adapt existing ones for veterans in Scotland. During 2018, we revised and published a Scottish housing guide for people who are leaving the armed forces and for ex-service personnel. In February this year, we issued revised practice guidance on social housing allocations, which includes a section on allocations for people who are leaving the armed forces. Again, I accept that more can be done in that area.