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I am delighted to have the opportunity to present the third annual update from the Scottish Government on support for veterans and the armed forces community in Scotland. The first update to Parliament was delivered in 2017 by Keith Brown, and we committed then to updating members annually to highlight the work that is happening across the public sector and with partners in the private and third sectors to improve services and support, and to ensure that there is no disadvantage for veterans, serving personnel and their families. The fact that we have the update as part of the parliamentary calendar is welcomed by those communities.
This week, we published the document, “Scottish Government Support for Veterans and the Armed Forces Community 2019”, which highlights the actions that we are taking across ministerial portfolios to improve service delivery and access. That cross-Government approach is vitally important, as ministers and cabinet secretaries work together to embed support for veterans. In a way, each and every one of my ministerial colleagues is a veterans minister for their own portfolio responsibilities. An excellent example is the cabinet secretary for Health and Sport, whose portfolio has such a locus in supporting those in our veterans community who are left with unwelcome legacies of their service.
In relation to health, I am pleased to announce today the creation of the national veterans care network, which will be developed by NHS National Services Scotland, and which responds to a key recommendation that was made by Eric Fraser, the first Scottish veterans commissioner. I am grateful to him for his role in directing us to deliver a network that will without doubt improve the care of our veterans community in Scotland, such as the veterans whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Erskine home in Bishopton last week.
The veterans care network aims to address a number of issues, including a better understanding of the care needs of the veterans population, the barriers to achieving the right access to care and geographical inequalities of services. Key objectives for the network will be the development of a veterans mental health action plan and ensuring that it complements Scotland’s 10-year mental health strategy, and reviewing current funding arrangements for specialist veterans services, ensuring that geographical inequalities are taken into account.
The delivery of those objectives and others will lead to greater parity in the level of care that is available for veterans, no matter where they are located in Scotland. The establishment of the network has been born out of not only Eric Fraser’s recommendation, but the views of veterans and charities. I recognise that it is a cause that has been championed in the Parliament, not least by Mike Rumbles.
As veterans minister, over the past 18 months I have visited various parts of the country, from Orkney to the Borders, and from Ayrshire and Arran to Grampian, to hear directly from those who deliver and those who access veterans health services. There has been an inconsistency in what is available and how it is accessed. The network will launch formally in the spring of 2020, but work on it is already getting under way and we are clear on where it is intended to take us.
Of course, it is not just partnership working in Government, but across the public, private and charitable sectors, that is so critical. This year saw the first meeting of the refreshed armed forces personnel and veterans health joint group, which brings together national health service champions, representatives of the service community, veterans organisations, the Scottish Government and other stakeholders. The group is central to delivering a number of the SVC’s recommendations and has identified several immediate priorities, including hearing aid provision and reviewing the guidance on wheelchairs.
Like the NHS champions, the role that is played by champions throughout the public sector remains critical. I am committed to strengthening our champions network in local authorities: following a roundtable that I held with them during the summer, we are working with them, the armed forces and Veterans Scotland to support greater understanding of how they can assist serving personnel, veterans and their families, and offer greater consistency in service delivery.
Our work with local authorities does not end with the champions, however. The Scottish Government’s affordable housing supply programme supports local authorities to deliver homes for veterans when they identify doing so as a priority. For example, we have awarded more than £350,000 to East Lothian Council to build six homes in Cockenzie for disabled veterans; they are due for completion by the end of March next year.
We will work with local authorities to fully consider the housing requirements of the armed forces community when developing local housing strategies. In addition, our new social housing allocation guidance gives practical advice to social landlords on giving priority to service leavers, and on ensuring that veterans are not disadvantaged when applying for social housing as a result of service time that they have spent outwith the local area.
We have also committed to working with public sector partners on employability and skills initiatives for veterans and service leavers who are making the transition back into civilian life. At Redford barracks in September, I had the great pleasure of launching the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership guide to infantry qualifications and what they mean in Scotland. That was produced with the support of the Scottish Funding Council. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership is expanding this work to credit further military qualifications against the framework. That will help employers and education organisations to better understand the varying skills and experience that armed forces leavers have to offer. Just as importantly, the work will support individual service leavers to translate their skills when seeking employment or education opportunities.
I am continually impressed by the strength of the veterans charitable sector in Scotland and I want to thank all those involved for the wonderful support that they continue to deliver. I have already mentioned Erskine, but I have also visited and met many other valued organisations over the past year, such as Scottish War Blinded. I am pleased that, by working with it and other stakeholders, practitioners certifying people as sight impaired are now guided to ask patients whether they served in the armed forces, and to then signpost them to the free services and support provided by Scottish War Blinded.
The Scottish veterans fund is our primary route to working directly in partnership with organisations and charities that support veterans. It has now given over £1.4 million to 150 projects across the country and that benefits the lives of hundreds of veterans and their families. The veterans fund is also a great example of public, private and charitable sectors interlinking. The Scottish Government is committed to continuing its funding for a further three years, and we welcome Standard Life Aberdeen’s continued partnership with the fund. The company is providing £80,000 for 2020-21, which brings the total funding for that year to £200,000.
I talked earlier about mainstreaming support for veterans and their families. That is demonstrated in Scotland’s education system being designed so that services can be adapted to meet the individual needs of children. This year, there have been a number of developments that will provide support, where needed, for the children and families of those in the armed forces—for example, the doubling of early learning and childcare hours by 2020; an additional £15 million to further enhance capacity in education authorities and schools to allow them to respond effectively to the individual needs of children and young people; and our commitment to developing counselling services for schools.
As well as supporting service children throughout their school years, we are committed to equity of access to further and higher education for veterans and their families. We are working with the Scottish Funding Council to explore the barriers to further and higher education that may exist for children of service families, including through the work of the Service Children’s Progression Alliance Scottish hub to champion the progression of children and young people from service families into further and higher education.
Jackie Baillie has indeed raised an issue, I think directly with my colleague Richard Lochhead. This is on-going work. It is going on across the UK with other Administrations. One of the barriers at present is to do with securing the appropriate data from the Ministry of Defence. That is work in progress, but we see it as a priority.
Since I took up my post, it has become ever more apparent to me how important the partners of service personnel and veterans are, both in supporting our servicemen and women to do their jobs and when they go through what can be a challenging time on leaving the forces. We should never forget that partners also need support, and I am determined that the Scottish Government does all that it can in that regard. That is why we amended the criteria for the workplace equality fund to include members of the armed forces community, including partners and spouses of veterans and service personnel. Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company successfully secured support from the fund for 2019-20, and I hope that other service charities will follow it in accessing funding to support families.
The Scottish Government will continue to work in collaboration with our existing partners in the public, private and charitable sectors while trying to forge new partnerships to improve the support that we provide for the armed forces community. My ministerial colleagues and I remain committed to providing the best possible levels of support for veterans, service personnel and their families, both now and in the future.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of other members and to responding to them in due course.
That the Parliament recognises the importance of the Armed Forces and veterans community and values the contribution that they continue to make to Scotland; supports the jointly developed Strategy for our Veterans, which has a clear vision to ensure the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families; notes that the Scottish Government will soon publish the response to its strategy consultation, setting out how it will take that vision forward in Scotland, and agrees that everyone should continue to work in partnership across the Scottish public, private and charitable sectors to ensure that the Armed Forces community receives the best possible support and access to services across Scotland.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in support of veterans, not only as shadow spokesperson for veteran affairs but as a veteran myself. The Scottish Conservatives will support the Scottish Government’s motion at decision time.
The armed forces veterans community in Scotland, which numbers 240,000, boasts committed and skilled individuals. Those men and women do not need our pity, nor any other outdated narrative. Rather, they need to be championed, promoted and supported in what they have to offer.
Since last year’s publication of “The Strategy for our Veterans”, a collaboration with the other Governments across the UK, we have seen encouraging moves towards a co-ordinated and effective delivery of support for veterans that considers their experience and varying levels of need. I hope that we will see further progress in achieving the outcomes that are set out in the strategy, such as improved integration, resilience and ambition.
The effort made by the Scottish Government and its partners in support of veterans in Scotland is evident, and I commend those strides. For example, I welcome the Government’s commitment to financially support the Scottish veterans fund for the next three years. The fund has given an impressive £1.4 million across 150 projects since it began. I welcome the minister’s announcement of the launch of the veterans care network, and I acknowledge the input by our colleague Mike Rumbles: I know that he has done a lot of work on that concept and I thank him for that.
On social isolation, especially among older veterans, it is certainly right that co-operative partnerships are forged between the Government and veterans organisations to ensure an open dialogue. Indeed, the contribution of Scotland’s many veterans charities and organisations is integral in the delivery of support. It is not possible to do their work justice today, but examples such as Poppyscotland, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association, or SSAFA Forces Help, and the Armed Services Advice Project, or ASAP, point to the range of help that such groups provide as a whole to those in need. For instance, since 2018, ASAP has given advice on more than 12,300 occasions, covering financial issues and social security.
As regards improvement, I hope that the distinct and diverse needs of older veterans will be considered in greater depth, with a robust and practical action plan in place—one that promotes resources and training for front-line staff. On that issue, I mentioned to the minister last year the work being done by organisations such as the Lothian Veterans Centre, Glasgow’s Helping Heroes, the Coming Home Centre and many others that do such a power of work. I asked whether the Government could consider providing some underpinning funding in many cases. Those organisations deal with hundreds of cases every year. In doing so, they take the load off local authorities and do not rely on funds from local authority social care budgets. That is a thought, and I look forward to hearing the minister’s comments on that in his closing speech.
There has been further encouragement of the NHS armed forces and veterans champion network. I have met many of those champions across Scotland, and it is obvious to me just how worth while their role is in connecting with veterans in their communities. I would encourage a greater number of representative armed forces champions at the fore of public institutions. I know that there is more of that now, whether in BT, in the NHS or elsewhere—I am coming across it in many other organisations and I welcome that.
I am sure we can all agree that those practical steps, while very encouraging, must be accompanied by wider societal shifts in understanding and attitudes towards veterans, especially surrounding their experience of transition, as has already been highlighted in reports from our Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace. I hope to see the strategy reflect that in its implementation.
On veteran support, we as parliamentarians are responsible, first and foremost, for targeting the misconceptions surrounding the experience of veterans after they return to civilian life.
Unhelpful stereotypes can enforce limited ideas of what is achievable, and can, in some cases, form barriers to veterans’ aspirations. Charlie Wallace, the Scottish veterans commissioner, has rightly pointed that out in his recent report. It must be recognised that transition is a complex and nuanced experience—different and unique for every veteran. Our approach to it, in keeping with “The Strategy for our Veterans”, will bear in mind the wide range of people who transition back into civilian life—both those who have enjoyed a long military career and those whose service was stopped short, whether for medical or for personal reasons.
Every year, more than 600 skilled personnel leave the armed forces. Their talents, coupled with sound experience, should be of considerable appeal to employers. It is a failure on our part, as well as that of employers, if our communities and businesses do not seize the opportunity to maximise on their potential and versatile capabilities.
We have already seen progress in employers’ support. This year, ten employers, all signatories to the armed forces covenant, received the silver award for their commitment to employment initiatives for veterans, including Glasgow Caledonian University and NHS Dumfries and Galloway. That support extends to the family—as it should do—which is very important. For example, more than 3,400 jobs are advertised through Forces Families Jobs, a site that offers training and employment for family members of those currently serving in the armed forces.
It is especially important that veterans be aware of the value and transferable nature of their skills from the armed forces. For prospective employers, service leavers can demonstrate commitment, discipline, co-operation, team work and leadership.
However, a recent survey, conducted by YouGov in collaboration with the Forces in Mind Trust, showed that 18 per cent of the executives with hiring responsibilities that were surveyed would discriminate against veterans due to “negative perceptions” of their military careers, citing their belief that veterans do not have the relevant skills or experience for the job. Of course, I recognise that the survey presents not the full picture, but a snapshot. However, although serving personnel need to understand and recognise their transferable skills, so do employers. I hope that, through the Government consultation on “The Strategy for our Veterans”, practical solutions to that mindset can be explored further.
For many looking to life after their armed forces career, housing can be one of the stand-out concerns, and the strategy identifies that as a key theme to address. Improvements have been made in that area. For example, the UK Government’s forces help-to-buy scheme has lent more than £280 million to more than 18,000 applicants who would benefit from financial contributions to buying, moving or extending their homes. I am glad to see that that scheme will be extended for another three years.
In my area of West Scotland, I have seen the pilot launch of the future accommodation model—FAM—for service personnel in Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde at Faslane. With the site set to become the Royal Navy’s sole integrated submarine operating base from 2020, the area will welcome around 1,700 submariners from Devonport to Clyde.
As I said earlier, the composition and needs of veterans are evolving over time. I am glad to see the funding commitment that the minister made today. I hope that he makes sure that funding for our unforgotten forces partnership is extended beyond June next year. That is very important and I know that it is under consideration. I also hope that he takes into consideration the points that I made last year.
I hope that, through the implementation of his strategy, we will encapsulate and promote the value of Scotland’s veteran community, and the aspirations that veterans seek to pursue.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on armed forces veterans. From the outset, I acknowledge the debt of gratitude that Scotland owes to those who have served in the defence of freedom and to put on record the continued support that we in the Labour Party give to our armed forces personnel and veterans.
We are committed to continuing to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that our veterans and their families receive the support that they need and deserve.
In particular, we recognise that our service personnel often need help with the transition to civilian life, especially 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.
Veterans are an asset to Scotland’s workplaces and communities, and we must ensure that we can harness their potential and fully support them in that transition to civilian life.
Those who have sacrificed most for our country deserve the best services and care possible and although recent updates highlight progress, there has not yet been enough progress on areas of need outlined by the Scottish veterans commissioner. In particular, the commissioner has noted that funding for specialist mental and physical health services for veterans is disjointed and, in some cases, ad hoc. Positive progress has been made to address veterans’ housing needs, but recent figures show that that may be reversing, with an increase in homelessness among the veteran community. A more ambitious approach is needed, both to supporting our veterans and ending homelessness in general, to ensure that that does not become a long-term trend.
We have a clear plan to support veterans across the UK including compensating nuclear test veterans, guaranteeing access to specialist mental and physical health services across Scotland, creating a minimum housing allocation for veterans, and investigating and acting on the barriers to veterans accessing services, particularly mental health services. Being a member of the armed forces, particularly during times of conflict, is immensely stressful, beyond anything that we can imagine. That stressful situation creates a level of commitment and an intense bond among service personnel that is unique to our armed forces. We can only imagine how isolated someone must feel if they are discharged from the armed forces into society alone, perhaps with no family support, having had such a close bond with the comrades they fought with and possibly lost in combat. They sometimes go from living at very close quarters with people they consider family—eating, sleeping, working and socialising with 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.
I cannot stress strongly enough that the majority of servicemen and women make a successful transition to civilian life. The veterans we have in Scotland are not a problem; they are absolutely an asset to our communities. Veterans have transferable skills that they may not realise they have, which become assets to companies and communities. However, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, it really is not hard to see why a minority of 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 to help former service personnel 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 children.
I 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's motion at decision time tonight and, as always, we are happy to work on a cross-party basis to support veterans in Scotland.
As a veteran of 15 years of Army service, with several tours of duty, both at home and abroad, I am pleased to take part in this annual debate. The first thing I want to do is to remind everyone, as Mark Griffin said—it bears saying again—that a great many adults in Scotland have served in the armed forces of our United Kingdom and the vast majority of our veterans go on to live normal and productive civilian lives. Unfortunately, though, some of our veterans face particular difficulties in the transition from service life to civilian life; indeed, they may have problems during later life, too. I shall concentrate on those individuals.
In previous annual debates I have concentrated my remarks on what I have seen as the lack of effective provision of veterans’ services in my North East Scotland region, particularly in the Grampian NHS Board area. In last year’s debate I said:
“People who have risked their lives for this country and have given years of service in the armed forces must be safe in the knowledge that they will return home to well-resourced health and wellbeing support services—for both mental and physical health—and that those services will be available to them regardless of which health board area they happen to live in”.
I also said that the minister is
“personally committed to seeing that the military covenant is more than just words” and that it should be
“operating throughout our public services.”—[
, 4 December 2018; c 47.]
Therefore, I welcome the minister’s announcement of a Scotland-wide NHS network for veterans.
We do not yet have an equitable service for our veterans across Scotland. Veterans in the north-east still make me aware that they have difficulties when they present to their general practitioners and that there is no effective first-point-of-contact service to ensure that every veteran is pointed in the right direction by their health professional.
I am pleased that there seems to be joined-up government in this area. I know that the health service is not the minister’s direct responsibility, but there are specific improvements for our veterans that can be made. I hope that the minister will be receptive to my suggestion.
Some veterans in the north-east have suggested to me that they would very much like visitor contact from veterans organisations when they are in hospital in the NHS Grampian area. A veterans question could be included on admissions forms asking whether the individual would welcome a visit from a veterans organisation while they are in hospital. Some veterans receive no visitors at all, and I know that some would, indeed, appreciate the contact. That is such a small change, but it could markedly improve veterans’ lives.
I cannot continue my speech without highlighting the work of Age Scotland, which aims to boost the health and wellbeing of those veterans over 65, and Citizens Advice Scotland’s armed services advice project.
In my region of North East Scotland, Age Scotland stepped in for the over-65s when the veterans first point programme lost its funding from NHS Grampian. Of course, that meant that those under 65 lost the service. However, I have been told today that some of Age Scotland’s funding for the programme may be under threat as of next June. It would be a pity if its service could not continue.
Citizens Advice Scotland’s armed services advice project is, as we have heard, another really valuable service. Last year, it gave advice to veterans and their families 12,000 times across Scotland, with much of that advice being provided to those in the north-east.
I am aware from personal contact with veterans in the north-east that there is a danger that many do not get the help and support that they need, especially in their contact with the NHS, so I particularly welcome the minister’s announcement today.
A lot of work is being done and there is, indeed, a lot more to do. I have made one proposal about hospital visiting arrangements. It would be immensely helpful if the minister could respond to that when summing up.
Thank you. I am sorry, but I have to be really strict with members. We have four minutes for speeches in the open debate. There is not a whisker of time in hand.
I remind members that I have three army barracks located at Dreghorn and Redford, and an army-exercise area, in my constituency.
Scotland has a long and proud military tradition, with more than 240,000 veterans in our ex-service community. The Scottish National Party Government was the first Administration in the UK to have a veterans minister and appointed the first-ever veterans commissioner.
The SNP Government also established a veterans portal on mygov.scot, which was launched back in 2017, to bring together a range of useful information on housing, health, jobs, education and veterans support services.
The Scottish veterans fund, which was established in 2008, has allocated more than £1.4 million of funding to more than 150 projects. The fund, which is supported by the Scottish Government and Standard Life Aberdeen, backs projects that provide new or innovative approaches to improving the lives of veterans. This year, the fund is open to supporting schemes that help the families of veterans, not just those who have previously served.
There are also 300 registered charities in Scotland that directly help serving personnel and veterans when they leave the armed forces. Organisations across Edinburgh have shown their commitment to our ex-armed forces personnel by signing up to the armed forces covenant. NHS Lothian and my ex-employer Lothian Buses were presented with a silver award from the armed forces covenant employer recognition scheme. City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh Napier University were recognised with a gold award as they had, along with other award winners, committed to ensuring that those who serve or have served in the armed forces and their families are treated fairly and are not disadvantaged in accessing services.
All those organisations, the Scottish Government and many other employers across Scotland recognise that those leaving the armed forces are an asset, bringing many transferable skills and attributes to civilian employers.
However, they can take up employment opportunities only if they have access to accommodation once they leave the Army. I have highlighted the issue before that when a soldier leaves the service, he is given 90 days to find alternative accommodation for his family. However, the UK Public Accounts Committee report, published in June of this year, says:
“The number of empty properties held by the Department was over 10,000 in 2018, roughly the same as 21 years before.”
It is my understanding that here in Edinburgh more than 150 Ministry of Defence homes are lying unoccupied. A previous Public Accounts Committee report on the subject of military homes described the Ministry of Defence's failure to reduce the number of empty home properties at a time of a UK national housing shortage as “scandalous”. That is why SNP MPs will commit to pressing the Ministry of Defence to use vacant MOD homes to house homeless ex-servicemen.
There is another issue that needs examination if all veterans who choose to stay here are to benefit from the support that Scotland offers them. The Army Families Federation highlights that they and their spouses must meet the knowledge of language and life requirement by taking the life in the UK test and passing the English language test. Foreign-born soldiers also have to pay application fees of £1,206 per adult and £1,012 per child. A soldier who has served more than four years in the British Army and wants to remain and work in the UK has to find, for the average family of four, £4,436 in fees plus £50 per person for the life in the UK test. The Home Office makes a profit on each application. Is that the way that we should treat our veterans?
I am pleased to speak in this debate as we work towards delivering for our veterans—individuals who have served our country with distinction and deserve only the highest praise.
I welcome the update from the minister regarding the Scottish Government’s strategy for our veterans, and I look forward to seeing further work done to implement it in the months and years ahead.
I also commend the Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, for his excellent work in producing the “Positive Futures: Getting Transition Right in Scotland” paper that was published last month. It is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the situation faced by many who leave our armed forces, and the challenges that they encounter in moving from the uniformed services to civilian life.
As Mr Wallace indicated, ensuring that our public services can meet the unique needs of veterans is the key to ensuring that as many as possible either return home or choose to make their home here at the end of their time in the military.
The “Positive Futures” paper set out some areas that are vital for easing the transition into civilian life, such as the involvement of families, as well as the need to work towards parity of perception and alignment of military and civilian experiences and qualifications. In addition, the report makes clear that a holistic approach involving Governments, local authorities, health boards and the wider community is by far the best way in which to deal with many of the societal challenges that veterans face. That should be considered at the early stages of people’s military careers, making sure that the transition from the military to civilian life does not place undue stress on individuals in a short space of time at the end of their careers.
It cannot be overstated that getting the transition phase right is of paramount importance for all who are leaving the armed forces. If we are able to get that right, military personnel will be able to leave the forces and move on with their lives in a stable and secure way, with a good job to call their own. If we fail to get that right, that opens the door to individuals getting lost in the system or slipping through the cracks into either poverty or crime. I know that everyone in this chamber is committed to doing all that they can to ensure that that does not happen.
I am pleased that the past year has seen a step-change in the supporting of veterans across the UK. As members will be aware, the UK Government set up a new Office for Veterans Affairs, to be chaired by retired Colonel David Richmond, formerly of the fifth battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
That is the first time that a UK Government has put such a strong focus on the wellbeing of our veteran community. I do not want to be too political in this debate when I say that I hope that that work is allowed to continue in the months and years ahead.
I opened my paper yesterday to read that an extra £5,000 is needed to finish restoration work on the war memorial arch in Turriff, in the north-east. I hope that the restorers get the money. That got me thinking. Not only do we owe a debt to the people who fought and died, to remember their sacrifice and their legacy—and I am delighted that we continue to do that—we owe just as much to people who are currently serving when they want to move on with their lives and enjoy the freedoms for which they have fought.
We must therefore keep working to ensure that our veterans have the support that they need when they leave our nation’s service. I look forward to seeing that work go on in the years to come.
I do not know whether I have mentioned it before in the chamber, but I am from Paisley. Paisley has a long association with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Many veterans in our town served with the Argylls all over the world, and the connection between the town and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was such that the regiment was given the freedom of the town.
Many veterans meet in the Royal British Legion in Paisley—the legion has no number and is just known as “the comrades club”. The club was created on the return of many veterans from the first world war, to support veterans and ensure their successful reintegration into civilian life. Time moves on, but the challenges remain the same. The veterans then saw themselves as comrades, as they still do, and the club supports its members and does an unbelievable amount of charity fundraising. Recently, it helped my wife, Stacey, to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research at the Anne Rowling clinic.
Many veterans have difficulties with reintegration into civilian life. That might be because of experiences that they had while they served abroad or because of something as simple as the experience of leaving family life and going straight into the army.
A constituent of mine had no idea how to deal with paying bills and everything else to do with his finances when he came out of the army, because he had gone in as a teenager. In that context, I was interested in what Maurice Corry said about transition. I have talked before in the Parliament about my constituent—I nearly gave his name there—and I used to talk about the negatives and his difficulties with integrating and becoming financially solvent. However, he has now gone through that transition and is self-employed. He has used the skills that he gained in the army as a positive and he now has his own chauffeuring business. People are quite happy to have a former soldier, who has been awarded the military cross, helping them to get from one place to another.
A few weeks ago, I led a members’ business debate on nuclear test veterans. In 1956, the UK Government decided to drop a nuclear bomb on national servicemen and regular soldiers, on Christmas Island. What those men and their families have been through is outrageous and heartbreaking. During that debate, I mentioned Ken McGinley, from Johnstone, who has campaigned tirelessly for those veterans. Ken is an inspiration to us all. He was there as a sapper in 1956, when the nuclear bomb was dropped on all those servicemen, to see how they would work in a nuclear battlefield—in the modern world, that seems bizarre and crazy. The UK Government has still not recognised the plight of those ex-servicemen; it is about time that it did.
I mentioned Paisley’s connection with the armed forces, which might be a reason why Scottish War Blinded opened a state-of-the-art centre in the town. The Hawkhead centre is for veterans who have sight loss, irrespective of the cause, and it is an activity hub for men and women of all ages and abilities. The minister and I visited the centre in the summer. Let us not talk about the archery—I will just say that I was not very good at it. I have no doubt that the minister will wax lyrical about what he did during that visit. The centre is an example of what is offered to everyone in the west of Scotland.
Our veterans are an asset to our communities—I hope that I have shown that in my speech. In many cases, they are active members of our communities. We must continue to support them.
As the deputy convener of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community,
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this annual debate and to recognise the importance of the contribution of armed forces veterans and their families to our nation. I welcome Charlie Wallace, the Scottish veterans commissioner, to the chamber.
Last week, I attended the service to mark the 50th anniversary of the continuous at-sea deterrent at the Scottish national war memorial, where I heard stories from the submariners and their families about just how challenging life is when people are away at sea. They are not able to see their loved ones or communicate with them while they are stuck in very cramped quarters at the bottom of the sea. We are all grateful for their service to our country and the work that they do to keep us safe.
Members will be aware that Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde is expanding. In addition to the 6,500 people who are employed at the Faslane and Coulport base, a further 4,500 work in the supply chain and in the local economy as a result of the money that is spent in the area. It is, in fact, the biggest single-site employer in the whole of Scotland, and it is set to become even bigger, with another almost 2,000 service personnel and their families relocating to Faslane as a result of the decision by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to base all the UK submarines at HMNB Clyde.
Although that has been a complex task, the Ministry of Defence has worked very effectively with neighbouring local authorities in Argyll and Bute and in West Dunbartonshire to prepare. The need for more housing is self-evident, as is the need to make provision in our local schools. Military spouses are bringing many talents with them: they are setting up businesses and they are contributing their skills to the local economy.
Turning to education, I will raise some issues that I have raised before. The minister knows that I am persistent—let me tell him that I have no intention of giving up. First, I want to discuss the service pupil premium, which is provided by the Department for Education for pastoral care in England. The service pupil premium is not available in Scotland, and it is not part of the criteria for pupil equity funding. That is disappointing, given the concentration of forces families in particular local authority areas.
Secondly, I turn to the MOD education support fund, which started life as a UK-wide fund with a £3 million budget. Its budget then doubled in size to £6 million, in 2014; however, over the past two years, the budget has declined to £3 million and then to £2 million. Of course, it is welcome that it has been continued, but it is disappointing that the numbers are going the wrong way. Scotland punches well above its weight in the allocation of money from the ESF. I know that it has helped to deliver a range of support activities in local authority areas, including in the minister’s constituency, in my constituency and in Argyll and Bute. I think that West Dunbartonshire was unsuccessful this time, but it will apply again.
The fund has helped to support activities in local authority areas where there are large clusters of service children in schools, and it provides help during stressful periods of relocation or deployment separation. Education is a devolved matter, and I have suggested to the minister that he should create a Scottish service pupil premium. It would not cost much money, and it would deliver sustainable long-term support, allowing schools to plan better. The minister and the Scottish Government proclaim their support for service personnel and their families, and I believe that they are genuine. It would be a very good way of demonstrating their support if they responded to the needs of service children in that way. I urge the minister: let us not wait any more; let us not have me make the same speech next year; let us do it now.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate and welcome the Government’s annual debate to reflect on progress that has been made and work that is still to be undertaken. Before I move to the substance of my speech, I thank all the people in my constituency who were involved in last month’s remembrance Sunday services, which were opportunities for communities to come together. I also express my gratitude to members who have signed my motion to hold a member’s business debate next year so that we can all recognise more fully the contributions in our communities to preserve and look after our war memorials and to ensure that any new information on them that comes to light is reflected on. I look forward to that debate.
I will reflect generally on our veterans community in Scotland. Last month, members might have seen “My Grandad’s War”, which was a BBC documentary that was led by Gary Lineker, who reflected on his grandfather’s experience of serving in Italy. It touched a chord with me when he interviewed one of the few remaining such veterans—a gentlemen who was 104 years old—about his experiences of serving in Italy. It struck me that my grandfather—my mother’s father—whom I unfortunately never met because he predeceased my birth, would have been 105 years old. He served with the Royal Artillery not only in Italy but in Greece, North Africa and Sicily.
The connections between those events some 70 years ago and today seem incredibly immediate. The documentary made me reflect that the contributions that veterans make transcend any one time period; they resonate with us today. What veterans have done in keeping us safe and secure is not just for this generation but for all generations, including future generations.
I was struck that many people from my generation and of my age fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Irrespective of people’s views on those wars, we are all united in our support for that community. Having been through that experience, many people of my age have come back and made an immense contribution to society, including in my Renfrewshire South constituency.
However, there are veterans who require extra support. Maurice Corry’s words were very powerful: veterans do not need to be pitied; they need to be supported and championed. I am delighted that a sense of common purpose has emerged across the chamber throughout the debate and that there is so much agreement.
I commend the Government’s work on employability. The exercises that are under way to map qualifications to enhance the opportunities for veterans to gain employment, and to enhance veterans’ ability to articulate to employers the relevance of their qualifications, are exceptionally important. That work is to be commended, as is the amendment to the criteria for the workplace equality fund.
I join my colleague George Adam in commending the work of Scottish War Blinded, particularly at the Hawkhead centre, which I was delighted to visit last year. I reiterate that the services that Scottish War Blinded provides are open to all veterans, regardless of the circumstances in which their sight was lost.
I see that the Presiding Officer is telling me to conclude, so I shall take that advice.
I, too, am pleased to speak in this important debate. It is clear from the contributions across the chamber that the Scottish Government is to be commended for the steady progress that it is making, year on year, to improve the lives of service personnel and their families across my Cowdenbeath constituency, the kingdom of Fife and Scotland as a whole.
I take this opportunity to mention Councillor Rod Cavanagh, who is Fife’s armed forces and veterans community champion. Councillor Cavanagh is a former Royal Marine and he does an excellent job in working with charities and other bodies to tackle the problems that individuals across Fife face in accessing the support that they need. I recently worked with Councillor Cavanagh on a constituency case, and I can say that he is a true champion of veterans and simply never gives up.
In the limited time that is available to me this afternoon, I will highlight a few issues of particular importance. First, I am very pleased to note the Scottish Government’s on-going commitment to the veterans fund, which was established by the Government in 2008. The fund has helped to support a wide range of projects, including those on housing and housing support—which we all recognise as vital issues—befriending, employability and transitioning to civilian life. I will come to the minister’s announcement of another important initiative later, but I very much welcome his commitment to further funding over the next three years.
Secondly, on the important issue of employability, I am pleased to note that the Scottish Government will continue to make funding available for the promotion of transferable skills, which many members have rightly highlighted as being important. That funding, which will be distributed by the Scottish Funding Council, will facilitate the continuation of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework and Partnership, which provides for the mapping of military qualifications against those that are recognised by employers. That is a crucial area of activity, as it is self-evident that people who have been in the armed forces possess a plethora of skills that would be of considerable benefit to a wide range of employers.
Thirdly, in the area of health, it is to be noted that a number of excellent initiatives have been undertaken and facilitated by the Scottish Government. In particular, I welcome the fact that, as is the case with local authorities, every NHS board has a champion for armed forces personnel and veterans. That is an extremely important post, and the incumbent has the responsibility of ensuring that no armed forces personnel or veterans face any disadvantage in accessing treatment for health issues that are a result of their service to their country.
I welcome the restructuring of the armed forces and veterans health joint group, which was effected in December last year. Given that we now have an oversight group that is chaired by the chief medical officer and an implementation group that is chaired by the national clinical director, it is evident that great importance is attached to ensuring that strategic approaches to policy are taken at a very high level. That approach has helped to ensure that the Scottish Government is on track to implement the 18 or so recommendations that the veterans commissioner made in his 2018 report. I understand that a majority of those recommendations have been, or are on the way to being, implemented.
Partnership working is crucial, and I pay tribute to the various charities that work alongside veterans and the Scottish Government. Those include SSAFA, Poppy Scotland, Scottish War Blinded, Help for Heroes, Citizens Advice Scotland and Age Scotland, among many others. I thank all the volunteers in those organisations for their unstinting support.
As a society, we owe our armed forces personnel and veterans an enormous debt. By working together, we can ensure that the right support and care are available for those who need them.
I welcome the chance to speak in the debate. With RM Condor in Angus, and facilities such as Rosendael veterans residence in Dundee, the issue involves many of my constituents in the North East Scotland region.
I am a member of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community. Though not a veteran, I, like many people, had parents who were. My father served in the Chindits in Burma. He came home with bouts of malaria that affected him throughout his life. He perhaps came home with other issues, but, for his generation, they were not spoken about.
I have visited the Rosendael veterans accommodation in Broughty Ferry, and I have seen at first hand the good work that the charity Scottish Veterans Residences does in looking after veterans who are in need. I have also met Stand Easy Productions, an organisation that encourages veterans who have mental health issues, particularly those related to post-traumatic stress disorder, to learn drama skills to improve their self-confidence, with many using the stage to open up about their time in the forces.
The UK Government has set up a new Office for Veterans’ Affairs, which will be responsible for ensuring that every veteran and their family know where to turn in order to access support when it is required. In addition, in 2014, the UK Government introduced the forces help-to-buy scheme, and it will extend it for another three years. As has been mentioned, the scheme has lent more than £280 million to more than 18,000 applicants.
The Scottish Government has also undertaken work in supporting veterans. It is independently advised on veterans’ affairs by the veterans commissioner, who is in the chamber today and who serves as an ambassador for all veterans in Scotland. The primary role of the commissioner is:
“to improve outcomes for veterans in Scotland, by engaging with, listening to, and acting on the experience of veterans, individually and collectively, and to be an ambassador for veterans in Scotland, helping public services focus on veterans’ experience of their service provision.”
The Scottish Government has also supported the veterans fund since 2008. Since its inception, the fund has given £1.4 million to 150 projects.
In 2019, Poppyscotland welcomed the publication of the UK veterans strategy and the work that the Scottish Government did to inform its development. Although it recognises that the needs of veterans are often coincident with those of other groups and individuals, Poppyscotland believes that they should be accorded recognition, respect, care and support.
The majority of serving personnel make a successful transition back into civilian life, going on to make positive and lasting contributions to society. However, a minority require extra support due to a range of needs that in many cases are multiple and complex.
Although the action that is being taken by the Scottish Government to oversee and fund activity is making a positive difference for veterans and their families, there is more work to be done. The strategy outlines the vision for the next decade, but it is worth highlighting that although much can be done to support people who are transitioning from the armed forces today and over the next 10 years, the support requirements of people who are already veterans should also be considered.
Furthermore, to deliver the strategy successfully, Governments will need to work together at local, devolved and national levels. In the armed services advice project, which is delivered by Citizen’s Advice Scotland, the service background of the people who are seen varies between regions depending on the proximity of bases where veterans settle. The variety of people and the variety of help that they require is a prime example of how there is more to be done.
Collaboration between Governments underpins the strategy for our veterans and I welcome the support coming from Governments across the UK. Veterans have unique needs and more work is needed to raise awareness of and improve responses to veterans’ issues. As a result, I support the ambitions of the UK and Scottish Governments to make the UK and, as part of that, Scotland great places to be a veteran.
Last week, in the debate on mental health, I raised the issues that are facing soldiers and veterans. I was somewhat surprised to be challenged by Willie Rennie for doing so. I sought to highlight the loneliness and isolation that many people face when they leave the armed forces and the mental health issues that ensue.
I also mentioned that both the first and second world wars were all-encompassing by nature and that there was a sense of shared experience for the soldiers returning home—a mainstream understanding of what they had undergone. However, the nature of our armed forces and of the conflicts that they fight have changed multiple times since then and we know that the experience of armed forces members is now not so widely shared. For people wishing to leave the armed forces today, there is little mainstream understanding of what it is like to serve—no national shared experience that can inform their welcome home.
Any veteran making the transition from military service to civilian life will face some degree of difficulty and isolation, but as our understanding of mental health improves, we begin to understand just how challenging that transition can be. For armed forces veterans, who have been totally immersed in the armed forces culture and separated from loved ones for long periods and who may have psychological or physical injuries, those factors are multiplied. That helps us to understand why 65 per cent of armed forces veterans find that exiting the armed forces causes them to feel lonely or socially isolated.
We have to be proud of the Scottish Government’s commitment to strengthening the bonds between our society and the armed forces community and of the fact that in Scotland we welcome former service members as valued members of the civilian community. That is why I welcome the Government’s strategy for our veterans, which is a collaborative approach that acknowledges the challenges faced by the armed services community. It sets out a clear vision to support it across a range of themes, including community, relationships and health and wellbeing.
We know that returning service members have a wealth of talents and experience that are easily transferable to our economy and our communities. As a society, we benefit when veterans are able to transition back to civilian life successfully, so I am pleased to see the efforts of both the Scottish and UK Governments to tackle the serious issue of social isolation in our armed forces community.
However, we have to acknowledge that the issues faced by our veterans often arise from their time in service, which is where many problems occur. The pay increase of 2 per cent for the armed forces is below the increase in average earnings, forces personnel have been subject to a public sector pay cap, and recruitment and retention is in crisis—I think that there is a recruitment shortfall of 8.4 per cent. The disastrous handling of the contract with Capita has caused problems as well, and we have huge downsizing at a time when the roles for and demands of the armed forces have increased dramatically.
We also have the situation—I fundamentally disagree with Jackie Baillie on this—in which we intend to spend up to £200 billion on nuclear weapons that should never be used when we cannot pay the average earnings to our armed forces personnel. That is a scandal—it is obscene. In addition, we have known for some time that there are major shortages in equipment, whether it is helicopters or boots, and we have seen a year-by-year reduction in the training opportunities available to members of the armed forces, which is part of the reason for the retention and recruitment crisis that we have.
If we want our veterans to have the best possible start when they rejoin civilian society, we have to ensure that their experience in the armed forces is a good one. As Gordon MacDonald pointed out, the quality of some service accommodation is absolutely appalling. I know one family who has been through three different education systems in three different countries within three years, and in substandard accommodation. Such experiences have a major effect on veterans.
This debate is about the armed forces and veterans. If we are serious about looking after our veterans, we have to make sure that their experience in the armed forces is just as good as we expect their experience to be when they come out of the armed forces.
Given that we are having this debate so close to Christmas, I want to speak first about those who served in our armed forces in recent conflicts and paid the ultimate price. This Christmas, the parents, spouses and children of those who lost their lives will be broken-hearted and without their loved ones. I know from speaking to members of such families that their grief and pain is every bit as real today as it was when they received the tragic news of the death of their loved one. So we remember the 19 servicemen from across Scotland who lost their lives in Iraq, and the 33 Scots who lost their lives in Afghanistan. We think of their families this Christmas.
I recently met representatives of a charity that works with homeless veterans, who told me that the number of veterans who are homeless has not decreased but increased. I have found it difficult to find statistics on that issue, as I have on many other areas of social policy regarding veterans. Although I recognise that the Scottish Government has committed to enhancing the collection, use and analysis of data across the public, private and charitable sectors, in order to build an evidence base so that the needs of veterans can be effectively identified and addressed, in my view that is not happening quickly enough. Perhaps the minister will say what progress he believes has been made.
The British Legion has stated that veterans who are homeless
“have been found on average to be older, have slept rough for longer, be less likely to use drugs and more likely to have alcohol-related problems” than the overall homeless population. A study by the ex-service action group highlighted that a clear majority of veterans who were experiencing homelessness had served in the army, rather than the navy or the air force, and pointed out that that might be attributable to the tendency of the army to recruit people from educationally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Although I welcome the work that the Scottish Government has done, we must step up the progress, because many veterans are still slipping through without the support that they need.
Veterans are mentioned briefly in the Government’s mental health strategy and its suicide prevention action plan, but that is not enough. One of the key recommendations of the report “Veterans’ Health & Wellbeing in Scotland” was that the Government should produce a mental health action plan focused on meeting the mental health needs of the veterans community. The report suggested that the action plan should address potential barriers to veterans accessing mental health services; the nature and scale of drug—especially painkiller—misuse by veterans; geographical inequalities in the provision of services; the protection of specialist PTSD services; and suicide risk in the veterans community.
The Government said in April that that an action plan on veterans health would be produced, but I am not aware that that has happened. So, although progress is being made, there is still much more to be done. We have heard from many members today that the majority of veterans transition without any major difficulty, but there is still a large minority who do not and who need more support.
I will finish where I started, by paying tribute to all those who have lost their lives in recent conflicts. It is important that we never forget not only their sacrifice but the sacrifice and pain that their families continue to suffer.
I remind members that I was a soldier and I served my country for 12 years. I am also very proud to be able to say that my son is still a soldier and that he is serving in the same regiment that I served in.
I do not foresee a future in which we will not need our armed services to protect our nation and to be a force for good across the world. There are people who foresee such a future, but my message to them is simple: I believe that they are very wrong. Veterans will therefore always be part of our responsibilities, as will families whose loved ones remain on duty.
As a veteran, I am pleased that there continues to be cross-party support to improve the support and services that are aimed at veterans and the armed forces community. I hope that that will continue for the future. I give credit to the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans for all that he is doing on behalf of veterans. I know that I often give him a hard time, but I believe that he works tirelessly on their behalf.
I welcome the combined approach that has been taken by the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government, which has resulted in all three jointly creating the strategy for our veterans. Through that strategy, veterans can expect, by 2028, to feel
“more valued, supported and empowered” and not disadvantaged as a result of their service. That is why I support the actions of groups such as the unforgotten forces consortium, which is co-ordinated by Poppyscotland. However, let us not forget that there are eight more long years to fulfil that ambition. The clock is ticking, and veterans rightly expect all three Governments to deliver. I believe that the Scottish Parliament will ensure that the Scottish Government does so.
I welcome the Scottish veterans commissioner’s most recent report, which is entitled “Positive Futures: Getting Transition Right in Scotland”. It is clear from that report that Governments and charities have a responsibility to help veterans to transition from military life to civilian life and to make that transition as smooth as possible. It has been mentioned already that more can be done to help veterans to find a new career and new accommodation. Those are just two areas.
Transition from the services is a challenging time, especially for some veterans. Let me be clear: we should understand that building a new life as a civilian cannot happen if veterans are being wrongly pursued. Members will have come to expect me to mention historical allegations and why I believe that they are a critically important issue to address. A member of the armed services knows that, despite the many unknowns, there will be some givens. The most important given is that, however difficult things become, one of their buddies will have their 6 o’clock. Whether the serviceman was in a tight spot in a ditch in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Africa, Srebrenica, Afghanistan or Iraq, or in any of the other conflicts that our services have taken part in, someone would always be by their side and that person would be by theirs. No one would be left behind, and no one would be hung out to dry. That is what veterans rightly expect when they have done their duty and they return to civilian life. Someone should always have their 6 o’clock, and that is the very country that put them in harm’s way during their service.
Recently, we have seen the rise of ambulance-chasing lawyers who have done little more than hound soldiers who have done only what was asked of them. In some cases, the lawyers have no experience of the pressures of armed conflict, and the biggest quandary that they have had to face is whether to have a latte or a flat white. If we want those in our armed services to transition fully to civilian life, we need them to know that we have their 6 o’clock. They should know that, when it comes to the law, provided they have followed it, we will never hang them out to dry. We also need them to know that people such as John Downey, who is strongly believed to have blown up my friends and colleagues and their horses in London, will face the full force of the law.
I will briefly mention the very important issue of housing. It has been mentioned today that, when soldiers leave the Army, they are given a short period in which to leave their house. That is to ensure that the council finds suitable housing for them and that quarters are kept vacant for families who come in. Having been a married soldier, I can tell you that there is nothing worse than your wife being unable to accompany you to where you are serving.
It is expected that, by 2028, almost half of all veterans living in Scotland will be of working age. There will be more veterans of working age who have families, and who have built up skills and are looking for a way to re-enter civilian life. It is crucial that the Scottish Government, in partnership with the UK and Welsh Governments, sets the right conditions for a seamless transition. Veterans need to know that we will always have soldiers’ and servicemen’s backs. We need to recognise that they have been prepared to give their all for us, and therefore we should do the same for them.
Former armed service personnel have much to offer society when they leave the services, and it is up to us, in this Parliament and across the United Kingdom, to make sure that we release their full potential.
I thank members for their contributions. I will respond to as many as I can in the time that I have available.
Before I do that, I will update the Parliament on the strategy for our veterans, and the work that the Scottish Government has undertaken since the strategy was launched in November 2018. The strategy set out to build on the work by organisations across the public, private and charitable sectors to support and empower veterans by setting clear goals for the next 10 years and beyond about how we should support our current and future veterans. The aim was to ensure that every veteran would feel even more valued, supported and empowered, and I am clear that that should extend to their families.
Members might recall that the Governments of the United Kingdom joined forces to create and launch the strategy, demonstrating our shared commitment to supporting the veterans community, and ensuring that the support that they receive is fit for the present and for the years to come. Following the launch, each Government conducted its own consultation on the strategy and undertook to share feedback to ensure that, wherever they were located in the UK, the views of veterans, their families and those who support them were heard.
I intended to take this opportunity to launch the Scottish Government’s response to the veterans strategy and to highlight some of the actions that we will be taking. However, one of the recurring messages that have come out of the consultation on the strategy has been stakeholders’ praise of the Governments working together to jointly own the strategy, which some described as putting veterans before politics.
Therefore, given the restrictions that the forthcoming general election has created, and following a request from the UK Government, I have decided to delay publishing the Scottish Government’s response until early in the new year, in an attempt to align it with the publication of those of the other Governments across the UK. I hope that the Parliament will recognise that doing so is a genuine attempt to maintain the collaborative approach that has gone down so well with the sector.
That said, an area that loomed large during the consultation—it has also been raised directly with me on many occasions and referenced in the debate—is the transition process, in which service leavers are prepared for life back in the civilian world. As we have heard, it has also been the subject of a commentary by the present Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, that was published just last week. There have been criticisms that, given its fundamental importance to a successful transition, the process is not being begun early enough or is too narrowly focused on employment outcomes. As other members have referenced, it has also been thought to require more content about other aspects, including education options and life skills such as managing money and securing suitable housing.
Clearly, the responsibility for action to improve the transition process lies primarily with the MOD and the UK Government, and I expect that their response to the strategy will include steps to address that. However, again in keeping with the joint Government collaboration on the strategy, I have spoken to Johnny Mercer, the MOD’s Minister for Military Personnel and Veterans, and have offered him every support from the Scottish Government in preparing service leavers for their lives after the military.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on the strategy for our veterans has provided an ideal opportunity to review our support for their community. I look forward to publishing our detailed response to the strategy early in the new year, and no later than the end of January.
I will address some of the points that other members raised in the debate. I commend Alex Rowley for reminding us of the sacrifice that families have made and continue to make, having lost loved ones in service of their country. That legacy is particularly felt at this time of year. He also made a point about homelessness and how the long-term trend on veteran homelessness is encouraging. Nevertheless, the more recent spike is a concern and it is one of the reasons why, in 2020, we will be developing a specific pathway to try to prevent homelessness in the veterans community. That is an important piece of work.
Alex Rowley also referenced the mental health action plan and tackling geographical challenges for veterans. I noted earlier that the new veterans care network will undertake that task, so we are very much alive to that issue.
Maurice Corry asked about underpinning funding for smaller charities. The principal vehicle is of course the veterans fund, and the Government, in partnership with some organisations in Scotland, is exploring how we might grow it to meet demand, because demand is significant, as we all know.
Maurice Corry also called for the skills potential of departing service leavers to be maximised, which is a priority for the Government. One way of doing so is to actively encourage those who proactively recruit from the services to become vocal advocates for that approach, in order to challenge the ill-informed view that veterans have somehow been diminished by their service, when, for the vast majority—as Mark Griffin and Gordon MacDonald noted—the reverse is true.
Maurice Corry also asked about the unforgotten forces consortium. We all know that the consortium is carrying out fantastic work in supporting our older veterans—it is a good model; there is no doubt about that. I recently met members of the consortium to be updated on how the work is progressing and their plans for the future. They are in the midst of on-going efforts to secure sustainable funding beyond 2020, when the UK Government LIBOR funding ceases. I have written to the UK Government on the consortium’s behalf, asking what plans Westminster has to support the work. After all, it set up the consortium and provided the prime funding. The principal responsibility for supporting that work lies at Westminster, but our dialogue with the consortium will continue, because I value its work.
Mike Rumbles raised a very important point regarding the social isolation of veterans when they are hospitalised. Between 2017 and 2019, the Defence Medical Welfare Service provided just such a service in hospitals, thanks to funding from the unforgotten forces consortium. That veteran-to-veteran support has continued since then in two health board areas, NHS Fife and NHS Ayrshire and Arran, because of direct funding from those boards. Additionally, the Royal British Legion Scotland’s befriending service will accept referrals by hospitals. There is a general data protection regulation issue here that has to be overcome, because not only would hospitalised veterans have to be prepared to declare themselves as having served, they would have to indicate a desire for such a visit. None of that is insurmountable, and I am happy to ask health colleagues to investigate how such a service might be delivered on a wider basis. The Scottish Government is also in the midst of exploring how it can support veterans organisations to enhance their befriending offerings more widely.
Gordon MacDonald highlighted the fees that are charged to armed forces families. To be clear, the Scottish Government views those fees as excessive.
George Adam was right to talk about deficits in the financial skills of some who are leaving the services. I point out to him that there is a growing recognition, particularly in the Army in Scotland, that it needs to better equip its personnel in that regard. I also draw his attention to a financial education programme that is being delivered to serving personnel by Barclays bank—it is a first-class service.
Alongside the usual elements to her contribution, Jackie Baillie noted the role of spouses in supporting the submarine service. I agree that such support is significant and I have met with that cohort twice in recent weeks, particularly around the issue of employability. It is hugely challenging for navy wives to secure sustained employment, which is one of the reasons why we are helping to develop a can do entrepreneurship hub at Faslane.
Annabelle Ewing noted the excellent work—
No. I am genuinely running out of time, as Jackie Baillie will note from the clock.
Annabelle Ewing noted the excellent work of Councillor Rod Cavanagh as the armed forces champion in Fife, and she was right to do so. We need to ensure that that level of excellence is the norm across Scotland, and I acknowledge that we have local authority champions of all political persuasions who are doing a first-class job.
As ever, this debate has been a constructive part of the parliamentary programme, and it has demonstrated the support for our veterans that exists across the political spectrum. I look forward to returning to the chamber early in the new year to update Parliament on the Government’s response to the strategy consultation findings.