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In December, during my annual update to Parliament on the Scottish Government’s support for veterans and the armed forces community, I committed that I would return to the chamber to apprise members of the Government’s response to the veterans strategy consultation. I am delighted to announce today that we have published “The Strategy for Our Veterans: Taking the Strategy Forward in Scotland”, which sets out how the Scottish Government and our partners will deliver across all of the strategy’s key themes and cross-cutting factors in Scotland.
The strategy builds on the work that the Scottish Government is already undertaking to support our veterans and armed forces community, which is set out in “Our Commitments”, published in 2012, “Renewing Our Commitments”, published in 2016, and our annual updates to this Parliament, the most recent of which was only last month.
The strategy recognised the importance of supporting our armed forces veterans and their families, and it sought to build on the work by organisations across the public, private and charitable sectors to support and empower current and future veterans by setting clear goals for the period through to 2028 and beyond.
The aim is to ensure that every veteran feels even more valued, supported and empowered and never faces disadvantage as a result of their service. It also represents a rare occurrence of the Governments of the United Kingdom working closely to develop and jointly own a strategy, which demonstrates how much we value our shared commitment to supporting the veterans community now and in the future.
After the strategy was published, each Government conducted its own consultation to ensure that the views of veterans, their families and those who support them from across the UK were heard, as well as to explore how the strategy might be implemented in response to the specific needs of the veterans population and the distinct mechanisms for delivery in each nation.
Our consultation highlighted that the cross-UK approach to the strategy created a strong joint foundation for achieving its outcomes, and there was consistent feedback from stakeholders praising that collaborative approach between the Governments. I am committed to continuing that inter-governmental approach, so welcomed by the sector, where appropriate and possible.
That was, I hope, demonstrated by my decision to delay publishing our response to the strategy from early December to the new year, following a request from the UK Government as a result of restrictions that were created by the general election. That was an attempt to align the timing of our response with that of other Governments across the UK. The UK and Welsh Governments will publish their responses this week.
The document that was published today is the culmination of the work that the Scottish Government has undertaken since the strategy was launched, in November 2018, which included consulting extensively across the country on how to take the strategy’s aims forward.
I was clear from the beginning that our response needed to be driven and informed by those with lived experience of the armed forces in Scotland—most importantly, veterans themselves and the organisations that support them. More than that, I wanted to ensure that we examined and addressed the needs of the wider armed forces community in Scotland, including the families who play a vital role in supporting veterans during and after service and whose lives are often impacted as a result of the demands of service on family life, including in relation to mobility and separation.
The Scottish Government has a close working relationship with stakeholders across the veterans and armed forces community. In addition to the UK public consultation, we conducted a series of face-to-face engagements with veterans stakeholders in Scotland across the public, private and third sectors, including groups of veterans. Those engagements ran until April 2019 and involved over 60 organisations and groups the length and breadth of Scotland, including charities large and small, local authorities, health boards, armed forces and veterans champions, organisations involved with housing, skills and employability, as well as the groups of veterans that I mentioned earlier. The engagements covered more than 450 individuals and supplemented the approximately 10 per cent of respondents from Scotland in the more than 2,000 responses to the public consultation.
Working with the Ministry of Defence, we participated in several of its resettlement workshops across Scotland, which were run on its behalf by the career transition partnership, to directly canvass the views of service leavers who were going through the transition process, which provided a valuable insight into their experience. That again demonstrates the cross-governmental ownership and approach. I am grateful to all those who contributed their views to the consultation process, which were invaluable as we developed our response.
Our engagements recognised that some of the detailed questions in the public consultation had already been addressed by the Scottish Veterans Commissioner and his reports. That, and the overall positive picture in Scotland that was shown by the feedback, reinforces the benefits of the Scottish Government’s decision to establish a veterans commissioner here in 2014—it is still the only such appointment in the UK.
The inaugural commissioner’s reports and recommendations on the transition process, housing, employability, education and skills, and health and wellbeing, as well as the current commissioner’s independent assessment of our progress across all those areas and his recent paper on transition, have helped to focus our activity over the past six years, ensuring that our policies have been developed with the views of the wider veterans sector being represented. Of course, that information will continue to influence our thinking.
I was pleased to participate in many of the consultation events that we conducted across Scotland, which ranged from small gatherings of veterans to larger-scale meetings and conferences with organisations including veterans charities and local authorities. My direct engagements included a visit to HMP Glenochil, where I heard directly from a group of veterans who, sadly, had fallen foul of the law.
Throughout my time in post, I have welcomed the honest and constructive nature of the opinions that have been presented to me, which was apparent at the consultation events that I attended. I continue to be impressed with the passionate and enthusiastic way that views are presented, and, most importantly, with the fact that the needs of veterans and their families are always at their heart. I never fail to be humbled by the tireless dedication of so many people in Scotland’s veterans charities and organisations, who continually look to improve the lives of veterans.
The comprehensive consultation process and the feedback that it has amassed in Scotland, combined with that which was collected by the UK Government during the wider public consultation, gives me a degree of confidence that we now have a clearer picture of the veterans community’s needs than we have ever had before.
As I have noted, overall, the feedback about support for veterans in Scotland was positive. The process has reinforced my view—I have said this many times before—that veterans are assets to our society. The vast majority thrive and make a significant contribution to the success of our country, from the knowledge and skills that they offer employers and businesses through to the positive impact that they and their families have on local communities.
Although no significant gaps were identified, there were a number of areas where potential improvements were suggested. Our strategy response, which we published today, summarises those areas and sets out what the Scottish Government and its partners are doing to address them, set against the cross-cutting factors of collaboration, co-ordination, data, perception and recognition, and the key themes of community and relationships, employment, education and skills, finance and debt, health and wellbeing, making a home in civilian society, and, of course, veterans and the law. Specific issues that were highlighted included the transition process, improving data, better understanding the principles of the armed forces covenant, and support for families.
As I said, the strategy sets out its aim and objectives over an extended period, and our response is, similarly, a long-term piece of work. Although we have identified some areas in which rapid progress can be made, there is clearly a need for continued engagement with the sector and our partners over the period that the strategy for our veterans spans and beyond. Therefore, we will report progress against the strategy through the existing annual update to the Parliament.
Going forward, the Scottish Government will continue to give the utmost importance to improving support for our veterans community. We owe our veterans and their families nothing less, and I, as the veterans minister, and this Government will do all that we can to ensure that they receive the recognition, support and care that they deserve.
I am happy to take questions from members.
I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement and join him in celebrating what our veterans have to offer and exploring how they—and, importantly, their families—can best be supported here, in Scotland.
All MSPs will be grateful that the Scottish Government has taken a consensual approach to veterans affairs and that it has co-ordinated its response with those of the UK and Welsh Governments. Will the minister commit to that consensual attitude guiding implementation of the responses’ recommendations and of any further steps on veterans affairs? Does the Scottish Government intend to respond to the UK and Welsh Governments’ responses to the strategy?
As Maurice Corry has acknowledged, I try to take a consensual approach. I commend him, too, for his approach to this very important issue.
In short, the answer is yes, we will do what he asks about, in so far as that is possible. We are all trying to clarify further the role of the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs that the UK Government has set up—how it will work in practice and how it will interact with the devolved Governments.
I am pleased to say that I will meet Johnny Mercer, the UK Ministry of Defence’s Minister for Defence People and Veterans, in London next week. One of the subjects that we will discuss is how we can work effectively together to improve the lives of veterans. We must be alive to the fact that often, veterans who have chosen to settle in Scotland with their families were not based here when they made that decision, so interaction between the Governments is incredibly important if we are to get right the initial phase of their resettlement and transition.
I welcome the statement and thank the minister for early sight of it.
I am delighted, first and foremost, that the strategy recognises that veterans are an asset to Scottish society. In February last year, the Government issued advice for social landlords on giving priority in allocations to services leavers, to ensure that former services personnel are not disadvantaged when they apply for social housing. How many local authorities and social landlords have amended their allocation policies to reflect that guidance?
I thank Mark Griffin, too, for his constructive tone, and I agree with him that veterans are overwhelmingly an asset to our communities.
I do not have to hand an exact answer to his question about how many local authorities and registered social landlords have amended their allocation policies, but I undertake to write back to him, because he has touched on an important issue. The guidance that was issued to RSLs and local authorities included best-practice examples and encouraged them to follow those examples. A particularly good example of how people should be supported to leave the armed forces came from South Lanarkshire
Mark Griffin’s question gives rise to the thought that perhaps we need to take another look at the issue in the context of the changing dynamics in respect of people who are leaving the services. The idea that they are always part of families and have served for 20 years is not the reality. Single early services leavers are leaving the forces in increasing numbers, so we might want to reflect on the issue with housing colleagues to ensure that we are assisting them as a group.
The minister will remember his visit to Scottish War Blinded’s centre in my constituency—not least because I beat him in the shooting competition. There, the minister saw a wide range of activities that reduce the loneliness and isolation that too many veterans experience. Does he agree that the strategy should, as well as ensuring effective access to mental health services, support community groups that bring veterans together and prevent the poor health that is often associated with loneliness and isolation?
I thank Angela Constance for reminding me of the gubbing that she gave me at the shooting competition. That was very kind of her.
However, she made a good point: veterans groups at all levels play an important role in addressing the needs of our veterans. Often, through interacting with smaller community groups, individuals begin, perhaps for the first time, to acknowledge their health issues. Social isolation in particular is an increasingly identified problem across society in general, in which veterans are recognised as a significant cohort.
The Government recognised that in the formulation of the social isolation strategy, through which we will work with partners including Legion Scotland, which already does fine work in the field. An example is the workstream that has been developed to provide formalised training on befriending and on mental health first aid to individuals who might deliver breakfast club activities across our communities. I absolutely acknowledge the important role of those groups.
I thank the minister for his statement and for the constructive tone with which the Scottish Government has approached the issue.
On data collection, the report states that if veterans’ questions are included in the 2021 census—as, I hope, they will be—analysing the data might take some time. Can the minister provide an estimate of when that data might be available to use?
Also, we all recognise the good that the Veterans First Point network has done over the years. However, despite its reliance on £2.4 million of Scottish Government funding since 2017, the report states only that funding discussions are ongoing. How far have those discussions gone and does the minister expect to be able to continue to fund the service in the years ahead.
I do not mean to deflect the question on the census in any way, but that is a matter for Parliament. The Government will bring that question to Parliament, and I am pretty confident that there will be support for a veterans question.
However, Tom Mason has made an important point. Gathering data through the census will be important, but it will take time, as will analysis. That long-term work is needed, so we are looking at how to improve data collection in a variety of other ways, and at cross-referencing different data sets to enhance our understanding.
To be honest, we have a rough idea of the number of veterans in Scotland: it is rough because many veterans choose not to identify as having a services background when they are taking up employment or registering for the health service. We need to work to encourage them to feel more enabled to give that information so that we can provide the support that they require.
I acknowledge the importance of the V1P model. The Government has undertaken live work on that and recognises that the funding runs only until the middle of this year.
Sadly, all too often, veterans suffer from a number of mental health issues as a result of trauma that they have experienced. Many do not access the support that they deserve. I welcome the progress that has been made in taking forward the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s recommendations to produce a mental health action plan for the health care of veterans. What progress has been made on that action plan, and when might it be implemented?
In December 2019, the Government announced the creation of the Scottish veterans care network. The network is charged with development of a veterans mental health action plan, which will complement the 10-year mental health strategy, and will begin its work in a little over two months.
Beneath that work stream and overarching strategies, small but significant measures can be implemented. That has been brought home to me on my travels around various health services in Scotland.
For example, the establishment of pathways from respected and highly regarded veterans charities to the national health service’s mental health services would enable the former to refer the individuals whom they encounter. As many of us know, troubled veterans very often do not have general practitioners, so reliance on traditional referral pathways does not work for them. That stream of work, which is being done through the Scottish veterans care network is under way and will be taken forward as a matter of priority. Other measures are being undertaken beneath that. I am happy to write to the member to outline how we are on the case on that.
I welcomed the opportunity to attend the launch of Defence Transition Services in Erskine last week, when I had first-hand experience of the fact that the quality of a service leaver’s transition to civilian life can vary from one local authority to the next, even though the armed forces covenant has been widely adopted across Scotland; the minister made that point earlier.
In addition to working with local authorities, will the minister engage with the new service to develop a more consistent approach and ensure that no service leaver anywhere is disadvantaged by the time that they give to our armed forces?
Nothing came out of the strategy consultation that was more to the fore than the transition experience. We will work closely with the new transition service that the UK Government has launched, because there is a need to get this right. To be honest, collectively, we are not getting the transition right at the moment. I am happy to commit to that on behalf of the Government.
Neil Bibby makes the very good point that there are variations in the levels of support that are provided, but we are working on that. There are terrific examples of local authority champions across all parties who are setting examples of how we can get it right in each council area.
Mr Bibby might be aware that, last year, the Government brought together the local authority champions to look at how we could get a more consistent approach. We committed to working with them on a number of their reasonable asks on job description, training and so on. We will reconvene early this year to look at how we support local authority champions and how we can improve the services that are offered by councils at all levels. The councils are key delivery partners for this Government, and the partnership approach is important if we are to get this right.
On the important issue of employment, the minister will be well aware that veterans are a significant asset for Scottish businesses. What is being done to encourage veterans to take up funding and access courses to develop their skills? What support is available to those businesses that seek to recruit veterans?
Another important aspect of the strategy is that it might not be right for a service leaver to immediately go into employment, so it is important to ensure that people have clear sight of the opportunities to learn that exist through further or higher education.
We are working collaboratively with colleges and universities on that and are making some progress.
We have also been developing training opportunities for veterans in all situations. For example, in 2019-20, we provided £800,000 to the workplace equality fund, the purpose of which is to work with employers to address long-standing barriers to particular groups, including spouses. Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, an organisation that I recommend that people visit, has successfully secured funding to work with Balfour Beatty, BEAR Scotland and other leading small and medium-sized enterprises to help them to create best practice in their organisations.
I think that Annabelle Ewing asked what the Scottish Government was doing with regard to business. Actually, to be honest, we need to tap into what business is doing. There are some fantastic employers in Scotland—large, medium and small—that proactively recruit from this cohort. We are working with them to encourage them to evangelise on the subject and reach out to employers that do not currently do that and to explain to them what the benefits are of recruiting from the veterans community. I am quite encouraged by the work that is going on in that sector, directed by us and by businesses themselves, and I am optimistic about the future in that regard.
Page 31 of the document that the minister kindly provided in advance—I thank him for that—says:
“With six local health boards the Scottish Government has provided joint funding for the Veterans First Point Network”.
The minister knows that I have been pursuing that issue for some time. All our health boards should be providing a first point of contact service. Can the minister say when we are likely to achieve an effective first point of contact service for all our veterans, whichever health board area they live in?
I acknowledge Mike Rumbles’s championing of this cause.
The Scottish Government has been working through an assessment of existing veterans first point services and exploring how services have been and are being delivered. We have also been considering those health board areas that do not have V1P services or which no longer have them—as Mike Rumbles knows, there are areas that used to have V1P services but which have lost them. As Mike Rumbles also knows, I have been visiting many health boards to examine the situation with regard to service delivery. I have to say that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has been incredibly supportive of that approach.
As we have heard, existing funding continues only until the middle of this year, so this is a matter of urgency. I can tell Mike Rumbles that the Minister for Mental Health and I are actively considering the issue and will meet later this week to examine progress on it.
Mike Rumbles is right that there is no doubt that the V1P approach is one that veterans have faith in. Through the establishment of the care network, the aim is to get to a point at which a consistency of service and service type is available to veterans the length and breadth of Scotland. I will not pretend that that will happen overnight, but we have made a commitment to deliver that kind of service.
Last year, the minister visited Dumfries to meet my constituents, including Robin Hood, a veteran who runs a charity called South West Scotland RnR, which helps former servicemen and servicewomen gain skills for employment by, for example, helping veterans to obtain their heavy goods vehicle licences. Robin Hood has recently commenced work with Dumfries and Galloway Council and local NFU Scotland representatives to help veterans to access jobs in agriculture.
I thank the minister for his visit. Will he join me in congratulating Robin Hood on his work, and can he outline how the veterans strategy will be able to support organisations such as South West Scotland RnR in the future?
I congratulate Robin Hood and his colleagues on their work. I very much enjoyed my visit to Dumfries and Galloway, at Emma Harper’s invitation, not least because it introduced me to Councillor Archie Dryburgh, the local authority veterans champion, who is something of a force of nature and is one of the very best examples of someone acting in that capacity.
With regard to how the strategy supports organisations such as the one that Emma Harper referred to, I can say that one of the aims of the strategy is to bring a greater coherence to the employment opportunities and pathways into employment that exist, whether they involve training, education or immediate routes into employment. The veterans employability strategic group is leading on that work.
I can give Emma Harper further examples of some of the things that are happening. In terms of mainstream employability, there are funding initiatives such as fair start Scotland and specific work such as the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework’s partnership project to map military qualifications against those that are recognised by employers. That is a fantastic piece of work that is changing the lives of those who are participating, because there is a real problem with translating military skills, particularly infantry skills, into civilian qualifications. The work will benefit not only the employees but also the employers.
A number of workstreams are under way. It is important that we build on those because, as I said earlier, transition into employability is incredibly important.
The statement identifies some areas in which rapid progress can be made, but there is clearly a need for continued engagement with the sector and partners. A progress report against the strategy is welcome, but will the minister clarify the actions that will be taken to ensure that continued engagement is achieved for the veterans and their families?
“It is encouraging to see such a comprehensive list of measures planned in response to the Strategy”.
That is not just a reflection on where we are. A series of short-term, medium-term and long-term measures have been identified, and I guarantee to Alexander Stewart that there will continue to be direct engagement with veterans. We know that there is a changing demographic, and needs will be different in different parts of the country.
Engagement will also continue with the relevant organisations. I appreciate being given the opportunity to make a point that I did not make in my statement. In Scotland, we are absolutely reliant on partnership working. The charitable sector in this country deserves enormous credit for the way that it goes about its task in supporting our veterans, and I am happy to put that on the record.