I will get started, because it is late. I do not need to tell members the obvious.
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-17435, in the name of Maurice Corry, on the unforgotten forces consortium. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises what it considers the great achievement of the Unforgotten Forces Consortium in being a prime example of an excellent collaborative project and bringing together 16 partners, led by Poppyscotland, from across the military and civilian sectors to provide advice, information and practical support to veterans aged 65 and over; understands that consortium members have provided 6,000 episodes of various types of support in its first 18 months; congratulates the consortium on winning an award at the Soldiering On Awards, and notes the calls on both the UK and Scottish governments to work with the consortium to review future funding options so that it can continue this innovative model of providing new and enhanced services beyond its current funding term and support older veterans in the West Scotland region and across Scotland who have served their country with great distinction.
First, I declare that I am an armed forces veteran. I am grateful to the members who have stayed on, after a long session in the chamber, for a pertinent debate on our armed forces.
It is an honour to open this members’ business debate and to speak of the amazing work of the unforgotten forces consortium.
When a person leaves the armed forces, they leave behind what feels like family, but when they return to so-called normal life, they often take overwhelming burdens with them. Of course, most veterans transition back into their communities well. However, others, whether experiencing physical injuries, loneliness or mental health issues, require services that offer extra support.
In Scotland, we are fortunate to have a multitude of charities and organisations that stand ready to help veterans improve their quality of life. That help is necessary. More than half of veterans live with a disability or long-term health condition, and knowing who they can turn to can be the biggest step forward in receiving advice and support.
Over time, our response has become more attuned to the layered nature of support that veterans require. For example, if a veteran is struggling with a problem, whether big or small, it is rare that that is the only challenge that they face. For instance, an older veteran with hearing loss could also be struggling with social isolation and a lack of daily interaction. The unforgotten forces consortium is one of the greatest examples of a collaborative and co-operative response serving Scotland’s older veterans. It connects the private sector and the third sector to offer veterans a wealth of support to tackle those issues.
The consortium, which was established in July 2017, is a strong partnership between 16 organisations—military and civilian—all of which are geared towards helping older veterans tackle their different needs. Kick started with a £4 million grant from the aged veterans fund, the consortium has been given the task of delivering a three-year programme to support veterans aged 65 and over, as well as their families, across Scotland. With one year to go in its current phase, it is clear to me—as it should be to us all—that future funding for the project would be an investment in the quality of life for older veterans.
The consortium aims to increase the support that is available for those veterans. As a whole, the project seeks to provide new and enhanced services covering health and wellbeing, social isolation, advice, practical help and arts engagement for older veterans.
A list of the members of the consortium demonstrates the range and depth of their expertise: Poppyscotland; Age Scotland; the Defence Medical Welfare Service; the Scottish older people’s assembly; Fares4Free, which was founded by David Gibson, who is in the public gallery; the Royal Air Forces Association; Luminate; Music in Hospitals and Care Scotland; Action on Hearing Loss; the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association; Citizens Advice Scotland; Erskine Hospital; ILM (Highland); Scottish War Blinded; Legion Scotland; and the University of the West of Scotland. Those partners offer a complementary mix of emotional and practical support, which means that, together, they capture the entire wellbeing of the veteran.
In promoting interconnected collaboration through referral pathways, the consortium has made the best use of the charitable provision that already exists in Scotland. Of course, today, I can provide only a flavour of the work of those charities. I wish that I could cover them all, but I will highlight a few samples.
The Defence Medical Welfare Service, which I have had the pleasure of working with several times, offers emotional support and practical services along healthcare pathways. By liaising with its partners, it encourages referrals to local support services that help veterans in their recovery and overall wellbeing.
Poppyscotland, which leads the consortium, offers assistance and practical guidance to veterans and their families, as well as to those who are still serving in the armed forces. Since 2017, it has aimed to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation among older veterans by offering its break away service, which provides bespoke holiday packages for older veterans and their families. I have read of trips to places that range from London to the Highlands and even Jersey.
I cannot speak too highly of the Erskine activity centre in my region, which I very much enjoyed visiting last year. At the centre, Erskine gives older veterans who are based in Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire the opportunity to try a variety of daily activities and offers them workshops in woodwork, music and computing, among other things. Those classes provide a wonderful way of reducing loneliness and introducing older veterans to new skills that they perhaps never realised that they could have.
The way in which the 16 organisations in the consortium function as a collaborative group highlights their effectiveness and shared purpose. The benefits of the unforgotten forces project are immense and far reaching. The co-operation between its partners means that veterans and their families face far less confusion and bewilderment when they approach an organisation for help. By taking the burden off their shoulders and sharing it across appropriate partners, the project goes a long way towards relieving the stress of being unsure of who to turn to. In approaching one organisation, one is in effect reaching out to all the partner organisations.
The consortium’s impact is clear. In its first 21 months, it provided 7,300 episodes of support to our older veterans, which is incredible. At the heart of that success is the efficiency and effectiveness of its referral pathway. The close-link approach allows staff in the organisations to connect with one another at a national management level and at the local grass-roots level. As Glen MacDonald, Poppyscotland’s unforgotten forces co-ordinator, has said, the consortium is a force multiplier.
The project has opened doors wide for conversation between the partners. They can more easily and readily discuss the best ways to provide a veteran support network and they can trade experiences and expertise to find the right solution for each veteran’s case.
It is right that the consortium’s work and impact have met the appreciative commendation that they deserve. In April, the group won a 2019 soldiering on award in the working together category for being a great example in its co-operative referrals. Surely such accolades speak of the need for unforgotten forces funding to continue beyond June 2020. The combined efforts of the partners show that the good work deserves to be secured for the future. It would be a disservice to Scotland’s older veterans if the enhanced services were limited in what they could offer. For that reason, I hope that the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments will work closely with the consortium to determine the available funding options.
The impact of the unforgotten forces project is clear. For older veterans who need guidance and help, the consortium stands ready to come alongside and direct them to the right port of call. That approach seeks to capture the veteran’s mental and physical wellbeing. As the current programme is set to expire next year, it is important to continue the funding that the consortium relies on. We have to secure the future of the unforgotten forces partnership and the veterans they serve.
Perhaps members will have noticed—or perhaps not—that the clock to time speeches cannot operate tonight. Do not ask me why; the reason is technological. Men have been put on the moon, but we cannot do clocks.
Members will have to measure their speeches in real time. It is now 19:13 in military time—[
.] Thank you, Mr Lyle—I do not need your comments. I ask you to pay attention to the time; you will be the exemplar.
I was going to ask why the clock had stopped.
I thank Maurice Corry for bringing the debate to the chamber. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate by speaking about Scottish War Blinded and the unforgotten forces consortium. I thank Richard Baker for his illuminating briefing, which highlighted the work that Scottish War Blinded has undertaken as part of the consortium.
Making my speech this evening is very personal for me. My support for Maurice Corry’s motion comes from a general sense of social responsibility, but the subject also touches on my life personally and professionally.
Like most families, my family has a long history of service in the Scottish armed forces. My grandfather was a sergeant in the Army during the first world war, and my father was in the Royal Air Force during the second world war, so two generations of my family have served my country and preserved our way of life for us, my children and my grandchildren.
As a young boy, I served in the 2166 Hamilton squadron of the air training corps—that will surprise many people. That experience helped to shape the man I am today, and it gave me a small insight into what it takes to be a member of the armed forces—in other words, what a person must be prepared to give.
That is why, during my time as a local councillor, I made servicemen and women my priority. I pressed, and eventually worked with, North Lanarkshire Council to ensure that servicemen and women in my constituency were not put at an unfair disadvantage because of their service. We changed the rules to ensure that their housing application dates were inclusive of the time that they had spent in the service of their country. They fought for us, so we should fight for them.
Perhaps more than ever, the work that charities in the unforgotten forces consortium are doing for our veterans is crucial. In its short 18-month life, the 15 separate charitable organisations that make up the consortium have collaborated seamlessly, touched the lives of numerous veterans and their families in many different ways, and met their individual needs through the pooling of ideas and resources. The consortium has been recognised through the soldiering on awards, and I offer my congratulations on that success. It is heartening to think of what it will achieve in the future, considering what it has already managed to achieve in a short timeframe.
As its name suggests, Scottish War Blinded works tirelessly in its particular role of supporting veterans who have suffered sight loss as a result of injuries sustained while in action. Through its activities as part of the consortium, Scottish War Blinded has been working alongside Age Scotland and Action on Hearing Loss to improve the lives of veterans with impaired hearing or sight, which is a significant group when one considers that research has found a causal link between post-traumatic stress disorder and sight loss.
The key to providing proper support is early intervention, so the sub-group of the consortium has been devising mechanisms to ensure that those in need specifically due to sight or hearing loss are identified at an early stage. The sub-group is working to raise awareness among veterans in Scotland not only of the services that are on offer, but of the need to ensure that veterans get themselves screened. As such, the sub-group hopes to aid in the provision of veteran screening and is encouraging medical practitioners who issue certificates of visual impairment to ask their patients, as a matter of course, whether they have served in the armed forces.
I am proud to say that the Scottish Government has shown great support to the outstanding organisation. The Government’s continued commitment to the consortium demonstrates its gratitude to and admiration for those who have served this country.
How much time do I have left, Presiding Officer?
One of the few things that all members of the Parliament can agree on is that our veterans deserve to be cared for, given the contribution and sacrifices that they and their families have made on our behalf. The cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community demonstrates the common will that exists across the chamber to meet those needs, and I thank the group’s current and past members for the work that they do.
The consortium has been building on the UK Government’s veterans strategy. In order to develop a strategy that works for Scotland, the CPG and the Scottish Government have been meeting to discuss the needs, ideas, concerns and hopes for the future of the consortium members, and of veterans and their families. It is in that spirit that I offer my unreserved and on-going support for the motion and for the work of the unforgotten forces consortium. I thank Maurice Corry for bringing the motion to the chamber.
It is always great to know that my speech will always be under four minutes, and that the Presiding Officer will not be able to give me too much of a hard time.
I declare an interest in that I, like Maurice Corry, am officially a veteran. I thank my colleague Maurice Corry for securing this important debate, which recognises the achievements of the unforgotten forces consortium and calls on the UK and Scottish Governments to review future funding options in order to guarantee the project for the long term. Let me set out why securing such funding is vital for our veterans.
Since the unforgotten forces project launched in summer 2017, it has provided more than 6,000 instances of support for veterans across Scotland, including free transport for essential travel, social support to counter loneliness and help with hearing loss. I am delighted that the project has won the working together award at the 2019 soldiering on awards. That award is thoroughly deserved.
The unforgotten forces consortium has helped so many veterans live full and satisfying lives and that should be reason enough for the Scottish Government to secure long-term funding for the project.
I have seen the work of the unforgotten forces consortium at first hand in the Highlands and Islands region. I was delighted to attend the launch of the hearing forces service in Fort George last summer. The service aims to help veterans with hearing loss and tinnitus, as well as their families and carers. Hearing loss affects many ex-servicemen. When I joined the army, we were not issued with hearing protectors. I know that firing small arms and tank guns has affected my hearing; I also suffer from tinnitus. I therefore have huge sympathy with those in the same boat, especially those who struggle to adjust to living with hearing aids. That is why the work of hearing forces is so important. The service provides support both before and after hearing aids have been fitted, giving veterans the help that they need to get used to them. Too many veterans have put their hearing aids in a drawer because they could not come to terms with the extra noise that they created.
I would also like to pay tribute to ILM Highland, which operates the Highland veterans handyperson service as part of the unforgotten forces project. The service helps veterans with odd jobs and small repairs around the home, which some find difficult due to disability and/or limited mobility.
Before I finish, how can I not mention the work of Poppyscotland? It is the lead partner in the unforgotten forces consortium, and last year, it raised more than £2 million from its poppy appeal to help veterans and their families. Every year, I am proud to wear the poppy, not only in remembrance of first world war losses but in recognition of every conflict since, in which our servicemen and women have sacrificed so much to defend this country.
The unforgotten forces consortium makes a massive contribution to improving veterans’ quality of life. I look forward to hearing the minister set out what support the Scottish Government can commit to so that the unforgotten forces consortium can continue its vital work for our veterans across Scotland, especially those in the Highlands and Islands.
I thank Maurice Corry for bringing this debate to the chamber and indeed for all his work as convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community. We had an interesting presentation about the unforgotten forces consortium at the CPG’s last meeting.
The Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, recently released a report that tracked the progress of the Scottish Government in reaching the targets set by his predecessor. He stated that the areas of veterans’ care that need most improvement are
“predominantly in areas where a joined-up approach to thinking and delivery is required, often across a number of bodies.”
The work of the unforgotten forces consortium since its establishment in October 2017 provides a shining example of the benefits that just such a co-operative approach across a number of bodies provides. Over halfway through the project, the consortium has, I think, so far recorded 7,200 instances of helping older veterans—or 7,300 instances, according to Maurice Corry. It was good to see the consortium being recognised for the success of its collaborative approach when it won the Forces in Mind Trust working together award. The consortium was also shortlisted for the best pioneering project category at the recent Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations charity awards.
Examples of the help that the consortium provides to veterans aged 65 and over include free transport for essential travel, advice about keeping their homes warm in winter, help with hearing loss—as we have heard from other members—practical and emotional support before and after discharge from hospital, and social support to counter loneliness. Practical support provided by the consortium to veterans and their families is helping to improve their everyday lives. The minister rightly advocates a holistic approach to the support of veterans. I agree with him. The consortium’s work has consistently provided a positive example of the benefits of just such a holistic approach to veterans’ care.
We should celebrate the fact that 16 bodies have come together to work so effectively to support Scotland’s veterans. The project has proved to be a resounding success so far. I will not name all 16 of the organisations, as Maurice Corry did, but I want to congratulate some of them. Poppyscotland is the lead agency. There is also Age Scotland, the Legion, Erskine, Scottish War Blinded, the University of the West of Scotland and many more besides. What they have done has been innovative and so important to the lived experience of our veterans.
As things stand, the consortium is funded until the end of June 2020, which is not too far away. After that, the future of the consortium is unclear, so the question is: what next? Where can the consortium go from here? Can it improve further and can its scope be expanded to provide support to a wider range of veterans? It would be a mistake to lose the valuable services that are provided. The consortium has been such a positive example of supporting veterans through collaboration, so it would be a travesty if it did not continue. There is a strong case to be made that the funding should not only continue but be increased to build on its success. At the very least, continuing to fund the consortium would provide a resounding statement of support for that kind of collaborative approach.
It is vital that the consortium continues to have a positive impact on veterans’ lives. The veterans commissioner, the Government and the third sector all agree that collaboration and co-operation are critical aspects of improving support for veterans. I hope that the minister will not only welcome what the unforgotten forces consortium has done so far but draw together a group of key people to drive forward access to funding so that the consortium’s work can continue for many years to come.
I congratulate Maurice Corry on bringing forward the motion for debate and other members on their input to the debate. As ever with deliberations on our armed forces and veterans community, the tone and approach have reflected the cross-party consensus that exists in the chamber. We share a common purpose in wanting the best for those who have served their country and their families.
Veterans are a great asset to our communities, and it is important to recognise that the vast or overwhelming majority of people who leave the military go on to lead highly productive lives. However, as we know, a number of them struggle immediately post service and, for others, issues emerge several years down the line. Then there are our older veterans who experience age-related issues. Collectively—by which I mean local and national government, working in partnership with our effective and highly regarded third sector—we owe them the best support that we can provide.
In Scotland, we have an extremely committed and close-knit set of veterans charities. I am constantly impressed by the work that they do day to day to make a difference to the lives of our veterans and their families. The unforgotten forces consortium, which encompasses military and non-military charities, is a great example of that, particularly with regard to our more aged veterans. One of the most striking things that I have found in engaging with charities in the area is the duty of care that they feel for those who approach them for assistance. If a charity cannot provide the help that is being sought, it does not just point the veteran in another direction. I have seen countless examples of charities personally guiding people and taking them through what can be a frustrating process to ensure that they source the help that they require.
The Minister for Older People and Equalities and I have had the pleasure of meeting the unforgotten forces consortium to learn about its work. I first met the consortium in January in Ayrshire and then again when addressing its annual conference in Stirling in April. In both cases, it was great to hear about the good work that the consortium had been undertaking and to discuss how the Scottish Government can support the veterans sector.
We know that, overall, the population in Scotland is ageing and that those who need help present with far more complex needs, and our veterans community is not exempt from that. By bringing together a group of charities, some of which are represented in the public gallery, the unforgotten forces consortium can provide seamless support for our veterans across a range of needs while making greater use of available funds through, for example, improved signposting, better cross-referrals between organisations and reduced duplication. In particular, the consortium’s emphasis on ensuring that those who are seeking help need to tell their story only once has been welcomed by veterans, who want as hassle free a pathway to support as possible.
The consortium’s efforts in supporting our veterans community very much parallel what we in the Scottish Government are doing more widely across the consortium’s three themes of physical wellbeing, sensory impairment and social isolation and loneliness.
For example, in our efforts to support older people’s physical wellbeing, over the past few years the Scottish Government has provided the Care Inspectorate with nearly £1.7 million to expand its successful care about physical activity programme so that it will reach more areas of Scotland. The programme provides practical support and encouragement to care staff in building physical activity into the daily activities and routines of people in their care. I know that older veterans who have participated in the programme have benefited from it and that ex-servicemen are also helping to bring their knowledge and expertise by leading activities in care settings.
To support veterans who find their eyesight failing in their later years, we have been working with partners to update the guidance on the certificate of visual impairment. In the coming months it will include a question on whether an individual has served in the forces, including as a reservist. If they have, the guidance will signpost the patient to information about Scottish War Blinded, which is able to offer services and lifetime support irrespective of whether the condition is directly attributable to the individual’s time in the services.
Another key part of our work across Government is driving progress to combat social isolation and loneliness throughout Scotland. In December 2018, we published our strategy on social isolation. We recognise that that can be an issue for some veterans, especially as they come from a community that, historically, has emphasised self-help. That is why the Scottish Government, through the Scottish veterans fund, has also funded organisations—of which the unforgotten forces consortium’s partnership fares 4 free is an example—to help our elderly veterans to have an active social life long into their old age.
As for future funding, my ministerial colleagues and I are still discussing how we can support the veterans sector beyond 2020. Like Mr Corry, I note the calls that have been made for the UK and Scottish Governments to work with the consortium to review future funding options in order that it can continue its innovative and successful work beyond its current funding term.
Let me finish as I began, on a note of consensus. As I indicated a moment ago, the Scottish ministers are presently considering how we might support the veterans sector in the years ahead. I know that the consortium is actively looking at a range of ways in which it might make its model sustainable. However, Mr Corry’s motion is right to note calls for input from the UK Government, too. It supported the establishment of the model through London interbank offered rate—LIBOR—funding, which, as we have heard, is coming to an end next year. Following its initial commitment to begin the work, there is clearly a question about the support that might be available from Westminster post-LIBOR. For its part, the Scottish Government will be happy to work with the consortium to review funding options to ensure that it will have a sustainable future, because it has certainly proven its worth.
Meeting closed at 19:32.