Veterans and Armed Forces Community

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23370, in the name of Graeme Dey, on Scottish Government support for the veterans and armed forces community in Scotland 2020. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am delighted to present the Scottish Government’s fourth annual update to Parliament on support for the veterans and armed forces community. I advise that the Government will support Labour’s amendment to the Government motion.

Since 2017, we have committed to returning to the chamber annually to update members, and to showcase the work that we are doing to improve services support and ensure that there is no disadvantage for serving personnel, veterans and their families. I welcome the opportunity to deliver the update.

This week, we published “Scottish Government Support for the Veterans and Armed Forces Community 2020”, detailing fully what we are doing across ministerial portfolios, and how we are working with partners in the public, private and third sectors. Cross-cutting collaborative teamwork is at the heart of the Government’s approach, which is perhaps no better highlighted than through the veterans strategy. In January, we published our strategy response, detailing how we will deliver on our commitment through to 2028. Taking the strategy forward in Scotland will be a collaborative effort across Government and with the veterans community. I am committed to continuing our joint-working approach to improving the lives of serving personnel, veterans and their families.

By supporting effective collaboration, we see a force multiplier and improved outcomes. The best example of that is the unforgotten forces consortium, which is a partnership of charitable organisations that deliver services to older veterans in Scotland. Earlier this year, I was pleased, in fact I was delighted, to announce that the Scottish Government is to contribute £750,000 over three years to the consortium to improve the health, wellbeing and quality of life of veterans. That was a gesture of support for the work that the consortium has been doing, and for that model.

The Scottish veterans fund is another example of public, private and charitable sector collaboration. We continue to invest in the fund. This year, in partnership with Standard Life Aberdeen, we have funded 15 projects, with funding totalling more than £165,000. Since 2008, more than 170 projects have received a total of more than £1.6 million from the fund. The criteria for bids this year was extended to include projects that address the impact of Covid-19 on the veterans community.

I have been clear that supporting veterans and their families to develop their skills and to find fulfilling and meaningful employment is a priority. I was delighted to announce a recent refresh of the veterans employability strategic group, with new co-chairs, to develop an ambitious vision. Originally formed following a Scottish veterans commissioner recommendation, the group still has an important role to play in improving the opportunities for veterans in Scotland. I believe that it will benefit greatly from the fresh pair of eyes of our external co-chair, Sue Bomphray. Many members in the chamber will have met Sue in her role at Barclays, where she very much walked the walk in relation to veterans. I believe that she is the perfect choice for the post.

On the subject of walking the walk, I can also announce progress regarding veterans employment in the Government. The Scottish Government is offering work placements to service leavers and veterans through the going forward into employment programme. Working with the Career Transition Partnership, we will on-board ex-service personnel through short placements and fixed-term appointments, which could subsequently be converted to permanent roles. I am delighted that the first two candidates are expected to join the Scottish Government in a matter of months.

Following engagement with the Officers Association Scotland, nine veterans are now in temporary roles in the Scottish Government, primarily to support our response to Covid-19, with more joining soon. The nature of those appointments will not permit conversion to permanent roles, but they are another positive step in providing employment opportunities and experience for veterans.

On skills, the Scottish Government has committed to funding until 2023 the valuable work on mapping military qualifications against those that are recognised by employers. That will help employers and educational institutions to understand the skills and expertise that service leavers have to offer, and will support individuals to articulate their skills. That work has focused initially on infantry qualifications, but is now beginning to look at Royal Navy catering services qualifications.

I also highlight the project that is being led by Skills Development Scotland to support veterans to develop their skills and help to address the significant gap in the nation’s cybersecurity workforce. Funded by the Scottish Government, it aims to reskill those with military security training and experience for roles that include security consultants and operations centre managers. It was developed following research that was commissioned by SDS and which looked into ways that career changers and the unemployed could be reskilled for cybersecurity careers, using alternative flexible and accessible pathways.

The project will add technical cyberskills to the students’ existing training and experience. Twenty ex-military participants are taking part in the eight-week programme to learn ethical hacking and penetration skills, at Abertay University and through online study and work placements. The programme restarted in September, having been interrupted by Covid-19.

Not only serving personnel and veterans need our support; I remain determined that we do all that we can to help their families, too. Service children who need additional support for learning because of their parents’ service will have their needs met through the additional support for learning framework. In October, the Scottish Government published its response to the review of the implementation of additional support for learning, and accepted all the recommendations. We will continue to work with partners to deliver those actions, thereby ensuring that children and young people can flourish in their learning and beyond.

I can also announce that, at the end of November, a refresh of the capitalising on military talent toolkit will be formally launched, to include information on the benefits of employing military family members, particularly spouses and partners, and to improve the knowledge of employers on how to do that successfully, which will enable more partners and family members to secure good-quality employment and continue to participate and progress in the workplace.

My ministerial colleagues and I are also committed to improving access and removing barriers to healthcare for the veterans and armed forces community. I am delighted that the Scottish veterans care network, having suffered a delay in roll-out caused by the pandemic, will be formally launched later this week, with an immediate focus on developing a mental health action plan.

Improving veterans’ mental health is a priority. This year, we have invested £1.4 million in Combat Stress, and we have provided joint funding with six health boards for the Veterans First Point network. Since 2017, the Scottish Government has provided nearly £3 million to support Veterans First Point’s services, and I am pleased to confirm that funding for V1P will continue, at the current level, for 2021-22.

We continue to work closely with local authorities, and I am committed to supporting our champions network. This year, we distributed veterans and armed forces awareness e-learning to councils. It is intended particularly for their front-line staff, to improve understanding of the armed forces covenant and how its principles should be applied locally. Feedback has been extremely positive, and I look forward to discussing it when I host the champions at a virtual round table next month.

On housing, the Scottish Government continues to offer funding from the £1.3 million grant award to Veterans Housing Scotland to support it as it progresses proposals to deliver homes for disabled ex-service personnel. In addition, the open market shared equity scheme, which offers successful applicants a stake of up to 40 per cent in the equity of a property, continues to be available to veterans who have left the forces in the past two years.

My ministerial colleagues and I are intent on providing the best support for veterans, service personnel and their families. We will continue to work collaboratively with partners across all sectors, now and in the future, to improve that support. I very much look forward to hearing contributions to the debate from members of all parties.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the importance of Scotland’s veterans and armed forces community and greatly values the significant contribution that they continue to make to Scotland; supports

The Strategy for our Veterans

, developed jointly with the UK Government, devolved governments and partners across the public, private and third sectors, which has a clear vision to ensure the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families; notes that, earlier this year, the Scottish Government published its response to its strategy consultation setting out how it will take that vision forward in Scotland, and agrees that the Scottish Government should continue to work in partnership across the Scottish public, private and charitable sectors, and with the UK Government and the other devolved governments, to ensure that the veterans and armed forces community receives the best possible support and access to services across Scotland.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

For people who have served in the military—a military that has been at war for much of my lifetime—reintegration into civilian life can be challenging. Are we doing enough to ease that transition for those who have served, and who have sacrificed so much, on our behalf?

I think that there is much better recognition of the challenges that military personnel face. Since the inception of this Parliament—the inception of devolution—good progress has been made. In my view, devolution has worked for veterans. That said, there is much more to be done.

The transition from uniformed duty to civilian status is not just a change of jobs. It is a change in virtually every aspect of life—career, responsibilities, job, home, community, lifestyle, healthcare, training and more. If service members have families, the transition also means big changes for their spouses and children.

Many organisations that were set up by veterans for veterans and their families have reported that during the Covid period demand for support has increased and the ability to raise funds has decreased. That is why we lodged an amendment that recognises the issue and calls on the Parliament to agree to work with such groups, to help to get them through.

Photo of Richard Lyle Richard Lyle Scottish National Party

Does the member, as a former councillor, agree that some councils do not do enough for veterans or place them highly enough on housing waiting lists?

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

The minister will say more about the issue, which we have discussed. There is a mix across local authorities, but I think that progress is being made in near enough every local authority that I have talked to recently. However, that is why we lodged the amendment, as I said.

We recognise the urgent need for a Scottish veterans care network and veterans mental health plan, and we welcome the steps towards their development. Mental illness is common and can affect anyone, including serving and former members of the armed forces and their families. Some people cope by getting support from family and friends or help with other issues in their lives. Others need clinical care and treatment, which could come from the national health service, support groups or charities.

Although it is completely normal to experience anxiety or depression after a traumatic event, such feelings can be tough to deal with. At a time when demand on our already-stretched mental health services is growing, it is important that the Government works with all organisations that provide support specifically to veterans.

Although good progress is being made, I say to the minister that many of the Scottish veterans commissioner’s recommendations have not been fully implemented. All the recommendations, which are on areas such as housing, health and employability, are essential if we are to ensure that veterans in Scotland are supported. That is a challenge, particularly in housing, given that we have a chronic shortage in that regard. However, older veterans in particular must be able to rely on safe, good quality and affordable housing.

Many people who have fought for their country bring long-term conditions home with them. We need to make sure that we provide top-class economic and social support for vulnerable veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating conditions.

As a Fifer, I cannot speak in today’s debate without mentioning this morning’s press headline that the UK Government is proposing to dismantle the Black Watch. Rob Scott, the chairman of the Fife branch of the Black Watch Association, has said that a decision to remove the Black Watch battalion from the Royal Regiment of Scotland would be a tragedy for history and would accelerate a downward spiral for the military side of the Army in Scotland. I ask Conservative members to have a word with their leaders in London, who seem determined to destroy all things Scottish, and to tell them about the relationship between the Black Watch and communities across Fife and Scotland. Because of that relationship, there is widespread support for veterans across Scottish communities.

I want to mention the families of people who did not come back from the recent conflicts. I have met many families of people who lost their lives and I say to them that our Parliament thinks of all those people, particularly at this time of year.

I move amendment S5M-23370.1, to insert at end:

“; notes the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of veterans charities to raise funds and provide support for veterans and their families, and agrees to work with such charities to support them through this period.”

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I declare an interest as a proud veteran and as convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community. I heard the rumour about the Black Watch, which greatly concerns me, although I have not looked into it yet. I was second in command of 3, Black Watch in Perth, which covered Strathmore, Angus, Montrose, Perth and Fife, so I know very well what Mr Rowley is talking about. We managed to recruit successfully in those areas and had drill halls in Dundee, Montrose and Forfar, as well as Perth, Kirkcaldy and other areas.

I am pleased to take part in the debate in support of our veterans across Scotland and the efforts made to champion what they have to offer. We shall support the Government’s motion; indeed, we shall support Labour’s amendment, too, because I quite understand where my colleague Mr Rowley is coming from when he talks about the charities that need so much support at the moment, in kind and particularly in advice.

The dedication of servicemen and women in protecting our country is of the highest standard. That was most recently evidenced in their immediate assistance with the United Kingdom’s Covid-19 response. Their contribution means that they deserve every opportunity to succeed when they return to civilian life. To make that possible requires continued partnered support from across our sectors and at every level of government.

“The Strategy for our Veterans”, published in 2018, was the collective work of the UK Government and devolved Administrations across the UK. Those collaborative efforts were driven not by party or political gain but by a recognised need to promote a multilevel co-ordination of veterans support to ensure that service leavers not only transition well but truly excel in whatever they choose to do. With that joined-up approach, our Governments and veterans stakeholders work to highlight and maximise the wide-ranging skills and abilities of our veterans. Now, more than ever, that co-ordinated approach must continue to improve signposting and increase awareness of the help available.

I welcome the work of the Scottish Government in building on that strategy, based on its own far-reaching consultation. The strategy abides by commendable principles: that veterans are of value and benefit to society; that they should be encouraged and equipped to maximise their potential; and that every veteran should be able to access support and advice at the point of need. I believe that every effort is being made, by both the Scottish and UK Governments, to achieve those principles. Thankfully, veterans support has generally come a long way, especially in the past decade. We have seen a welcome shift in the narrative—one that moves on from the tired notion of a one-size-fits-all approach to support for veterans. Of course, many ex-service personnel transition back into society successfully and pursue their chosen career without requiring additional support. However, some individuals experience challenges, such as securing a house—as referred to earlier—or steady work, or managing their physical and mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has exacerbated those issues. Employment is one such example. Job criteria can often be overly specific, despite a veteran’s clear capability for a role. I hope that the Scottish Government will focus on incentivising more businesses to put their support of the armed forces covenant into practice, particularly regarding the recruitment of younger early service leavers, where there is space for improvement. I am delighted to hear the minister’s statement today about more emphasis on employment opportunities, skills, training and qualifications.

Given those challenging circumstances, the response of veterans organisations and charities in Scotland has been nothing short of inspiring. Operating under heavy constraints, most have fought to adapt and increase their services to answer heightened demand, particularly in cases of social isolation and anxiety. For instance, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help has established an emergency response fund, which has assisted veterans with accessing benefits and entitlements. In Helensburgh over the weekend, I was involved in the case of a Welsh infantryman who, unfortunately, had been sleeping on the streets for too long. We managed to bring him inside to temporary accommodation, thanks to SSAFA and Argyll and Bute Council working well together.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Rumbles, in fairness to you, I will not grumble if you take an extra minute.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

If I may, I will mention to Maurice Corry my Black Watch credentials. I served with the Black Watch and other Scottish infantry regiments during my first army posting to Glencorse barracks back in 1980. It was some time ago, but there we are.

I very much welcome the annual debate focusing on the welfare of our armed forces veterans. I cannot help but find it difficult to refer to myself as a veteran, but I left the army when I was 38. I am approaching retirement age, so perhaps I will get more used to it.

During the parliamentary session, I have repeatedly taken the annual opportunity to highlight the difficulties, particularly in access to health services, faced by veterans who live in the Grampian health board area. I have long argued that our veterans, wherever they may live in Scotland, should have the same access to NHS physical and mental health services.

In last year’s debate, I was, for the first time, heartened by the approach of the Scottish Government in seriously addressing the issue. I was particularly taken with the personal commitment of Graeme Dey, the minister for veterans, to tackle the issue, building on the work of his predecessor. I was pleased to hear that the minister was to launch a national veterans care network in the spring of this year. The network was to provide service improvement and planning across the whole country, which would ensure that veterans have access to specialist care wherever they live in Scotland. That is exactly what I have been calling for since I came back to the Parliament in 2016. However, the launch of the network has been understandably delayed by the focus on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic—as I say, I totally accept the reasons for the delay. It is great news that the network is to be launched on 19 November and I whole-heartedly commend the minister for his efforts to ensure that that takes place.

I wonder whether, in his summing up, the minister could commit to briefing members who are particularly interested on how the network will operate. That would be very helpful, because there is much in the field to be done.

In June, the Scottish veterans commissioner published an update on how things were going, which covered transition, housing, employability, skills and learning, and health and wellbeing. It was a snapshot of how well Government was doing against previous recommendations. Of the 63 recommendations, 18 had been fully implemented, with two being superseded. In the time available, I will not go into those in depth, but, although there is much still to be done, Graeme Dey should be commended for driving those forward.

I will be retiring from the Scottish Parliament next year, although, because of the new bill that has been published this morning, it will be on 5 May rather than at the end of March. I am pleased to say that, in my time here, I have seen a much-needed improvement in the services that are made available for all our veterans across all parts of Scotland, and particularly in my area in the north-east. I am glad to have had an opportunity to say so.

The Presiding Officer said that I had extra time, which is funny, because I had prepared a very short contribution. The moment that I do that, she gives me more time, but that is the way of life.

I end my contribution to the debate by saying well done to the minister. Members do not often hear that from me, do they?

Members:

No!

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Well done to the minister for his personal commitment to getting the national veterans care network launched this week. Long may the good work continue, because there is certainly much more to do.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. Just because I give you an extra minute, that does not mean that you have to use it. We move to the open debate.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I mark my appreciation of and offer my thanks to our veterans and armed forces community. It is a special community, which is a huge asset to Scotland and makes an enormous contribution to our country. I also commend the Scottish National Party Scottish Government and, in particular, the minister for their continuing, unwavering support for the community and their determination to put veterans on the map. This Government was the first in the life of our reconvened Scottish Parliament to have a veterans minister and the first across these isles to appoint an independent Scottish veterans commissioner. Another key structural innovation has been the establishment across local councils and NHS health boards of veterans champions, and I commend the significant contribution within Fife Council of its veterans champion Councillor Rod Cavanagh, who is a former marine.

In the short time available, I will focus on three specific issues. The first is the important issue of mental health, which members have mentioned. Not all veterans easily make the transition to civilian life, so we need to support them in that transition. I welcome the further funding, which was announced today, to

Veterans First Point Scotland, which plays a pivotal role in that regard. I am pleased to note that, as part of its regional network, its Fife base is Cardenden in my constituency.

The second issue is housing, which has also been mentioned. Although a lot of activity is going on, for which I commend the Scottish Government—including the on-going work to develop a veterans homelessness prevention pathway—more can still be done, particularly in relation to adaptations. In my experience, SSAFA provides invaluable support, but, even with its involvement, it can be difficult to get things moving in a timely manner, and I hope that the minister can use his good offices in that regard.

The third issue concerns employability and transferable skills and, again, I note the good work that is going on there. The minister referred to some of that in his opening statement, and I am particularly interested in the work of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership, which is working on the mapping of military qualifications that are recognised by employers in Scotland. Again, there is more to be done; I imagine that employers could do a lot more in that regard, and I urge them to step up to the plate.

I am proud of the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to our veterans and armed forces community. Sadly, that must be contrasted with the devastating news in today’s paper that yet another UK Government—this time of a Tory hue—has the Black Watch in its sights. For the sake of completeness, I ask who can forget the then Labour Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, who started the amalgamation process in 2004 and made the announcement on the very day that the Black Watch was returning from its second back-to-back tour of duty in Iraq. Another day, another Westminster betrayal.

Photo of Peter Chapman Peter Chapman Conservative

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the annual veterans update and how both the UK and Scottish Governments can continue to protect and support our veterans who have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, so much to serve our country.

The role of the armed services during the nation’s most recent time of need, Covid-19, cannot be overstated, from setting up hospitals and ensuring that mobile testing units were available, to supporting care homes and rural areas with local testing, including in Peterhead in my local area—that was a real bonus. It is reassuring to know that, once more, in our time of need, the armed forces are ready and able to step up and support us.

It is with that in mind that I am glad to hear that the UK and Scottish Governments continue to work together to achieve the goals set out in “The Strategy for our Veterans” to address the immediate needs of older veterans and develop ways for the newer generation of veterans to be empowered and supported. It is encouraging to note that the Scottish Government’s consultation on veteran support in Scotland found no significant gaps in support for veterans, but it outlined areas where improvements could be made. Indeed, constant improvement in veterans support should always be strived for and achieved.

I am pleased that the UK Government has committed £6 million of extra funding to armed forces charities to support veterans, personnel and their families through the pandemic and has set up a new Office for Veterans’ Affairs. The new office has been tasked with delivering better outcomes for veterans, focusing in particular on mental health, employment and housing. Indeed, the launch of the HeadFIT website, a site that allows 24/7 access to online self-help tools that aim to enhance mood, drive and confidence, as well as manage the stresses of everyday life, shows that there is an important emphasis on ensuring that veterans have access to tools that aid recovery from mental as well as physical trauma.

The Scottish Government has provided significant funding to the unforgotten forces partnership to ensure that it can continue its vital work. The Scottish veterans fund continues to allocate funding to projects ranging from the provision of mental health support and employment opportunities to housing support for veterans.

I would like to highlight the use of the third sector in achieving the goals of “Th e Strategy for our Veterans”. In 2019, there were 291 armed forces charities operating in Scotland. I would particularly like to highlight the efforts of Joyce MacMillan, who is the Scottish co-ordinator of Soldiers off the Street and also runs a charity shop in Fraserburgh that aims to support veterans and their families. Joyce is a real enthusiast, and with her team around her, she makes a real difference to our veterans in the north-east. I thank Joyce for her dedication.

It would be remiss of me not to highlight the extraordinary efforts of armed forces charities in adapting to the challenges of Covid-19 this year and providing opportunities to people to mark remembrance day virtually and through other means. It was a very strange and quiet occasion in Fraserburgh. Normally, we have hundreds of people marching to the monument for the laying of wreaths, but this year it was a very quiet affair.

All of us here recognise the need for help to be available to veterans in their hour of need, just as they continue to be there in our hour of need. I am sure that we all agree that it is an issue that transcends party politics. I call upon the UK and Scottish Governments to work together, with the third sector, to ensure that the needs of our veterans are met.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the fourth annual update on support for the armed forces and veterans community in Scotland. It may well be our last such debate in this session. If so, I take the opportunity—I cannot believe that I am going to use these words—to join Mike Rumbles in congratulating the minister on the work that he has done over the past two and more years. In working with veterans organisations and other parties, he has shown a genuine and personal commitment.

I also mention the work of Maurice Corry over the years through the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community. There is no question about the commitment that he has shown to all sorts of veterans organisations across Scotland, so well done to him.

I am very proud that the Scottish Government’s commitment to the armed forces and veterans community is a matter of public record. Not least, I am proud of the appointment of a Scottish veterans commissioner, which was the first of its kind anywhere in the UK.

In August, I lodged a motion in the Parliament that celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Armed Services Advice Project, which has been crucial in ensuring that veterans and their families get the support that they are entitled to and deserve. I thank all the members across the chamber who supported that motion, as well as those who supported my more recent motion celebrating the removal of all land mines from the Falkland Islands.

The Armed Services Advice Project is run by Citizens Advice Scotland and has been funded by a coalition of military charities since it was founded in 2010. Since then, it has supported more than 16,000 people and has unlocked nearly £18 million—that is an extraordinary amount of money. When we look at some of the individual cases involved, we see that the change that the project has made to veterans’ lives has often been huge. Veterans are perfectly entitled to the money but, through reluctance or because they are not aware of the support, they have not picked up the benefits. The support includes welfare benefits, unpaid wages, compensation and money from other funding sources.

I take this opportunity to record my thanks for the advice and support that the project has been able to provide to my constituents over the past 10 years, not least, through Ally Gemmell, who works in Stirling but has worked with veterans in my local area. In particular, I highlight the hard work and commitment of Ally and his staff. He is a regional support officer, and he and his staff cover Clackmannanshire, in my constituency, and parts of Stirling. They provide an excellent and, sometimes, life-changing service to the veterans who receive their support.

As is recognised in so many areas, we have to drive responses by including the lived experience of individuals. That is exactly the approach that the Armed Services Advice Project takes. It was the perfect organisation to work with the Money Advice Trust to ensure that its “How to deal with debt” guide, which is funded by the Scottish Government and is due to be launched later this year, addresses the specific needs of the veterans community.

Despite the challenges that we have faced over the past year, I am very pleased that sustained progress has been made to support the veterans and armed forces community. I note that adjustments have been made as a result of the pandemic, which has obviously provided a challenge for people in the community.

I agree with Alex Rowley’s point that devolution has been extremely good for our veterans and armed forces community in Scotland.

The reason why the story about the Black Watch is important and should feature in the debate is that the support structure, which includes pastoral support, for locally driven recruitment areas that serve particular regiments is vital to veterans. I hope that, as a result of the debate, we will have a united approach from the chamber. It might be that there is nothing to the story. The UK Government might not intend to get rid of the Black Watch, but if it does, a united approach from the chamber in speaking out against any attempt to remove the Black Watch would be very welcome.

On that point, I should declare an interest. My grandfather served with the Black Watch in 1918. In fact, when I was a toddler, he used to regularly regale me with stories about a young guy called Mike Rumbles and some of the things that they got up to when they were both in the Black Watch. I cannot believe that I have started and finished a speech with reference to Mike Rumbles. However, there is a very important point. The communities that our service personnel join—their regiments—are extremely important to them after they have left the service. I hope that there will be no further reduction in the regiments in Scotland.

Well done to the minister and to Maurice Corry.

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

I thank Graeme Dey for bringing the debate to the chamber. Last week, I had the privilege of taking part in the remembrance day debate and speaking about some charities that assist our veterans, ensuring that support is available for serving and ex-service personnel.

The Scottish Government has a responsibility to veterans on several devolved issues, including housing, health and social care, skills and employability, and education. There are about 400,000 veterans in Scotland—there are more than 500,000 people when the complete ex-service community, including families, is taken into account. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that no member of the armed forces, service family member or veteran faces disadvantage.

During today’s debate, I would like to focus on mental health and the need for continual support—especially for our servicemen and women. I would also like to highlight charities such as Combat Stress and Rock2Recovery. Both have been working hard to develop online resources to provide peer support as well as maintaining helpline contacts aimed at coaching veterans and keeping them informed of techniques that might assist them in their time of need.

Some veterans with mental health issues might find themselves turning to drugs to alleviate their trauma. That can vary from alcohol to prescribed medication or illegal drug use. In last week’s debate, I mentioned the Glasgow-based charity the Coming Home Centre. I spoke about the challenges that it faced at the beginning of lockdown and about the importance of repetitiveness and familiarity, problems being heard and, of course, essential food packages being delivered.

The charity told me that, when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, a more joined-up method for support agencies is vital, as each individual serviceperson has different circumstances and a one-size-fits-all approach will always leave someone behind. I can give an example of a veteran with whom that charity is working who has tried, on numerous occasions, to take his own life with prescribed medication. Now his general practitioner will not prescribe until he is receiving help from an addiction team. The addiction team has a waiting list and, as he is now homeless, it has been difficult to negotiate with neighbouring councils to take responsibility for this veteran in his time of need.

Combat Stress reported that it is important to note that, as well as alcohol and drug consumption, chronic pain should be considered. In those cases, chronic pain might serve as a reminder of a traumatic event that will often make a veteran’s psychological symptoms even worse and lead to them feeling low in mood or feeling that life is not worth living. Many veterans struggle with feelings of frustration and anger, and those might feel more intense due to the recent pandemic.

The charity also stated that military training means being very alert to hidden dangers, along with the ability to become angry and aggressive very quickly. That could be useful in the military and is often necessary when on active duty, but not in civilian life. Some veterans might be left feeling angry about their experiences. Therefore, building up relationships of trust is necessary, because opening up about their lived experience can increase cases of post-traumatic stress. The first step of agreeing to support is not an easy task, and once that trust has been gained a referral can be made.

However, many support agencies, such as rehabilitation centres, require a person to be alcohol or drug free for four weeks. Addiction teams are vital but, when waiting lists are long, it becomes a continuous merry-go-round. That is why it is vital that there is more support for serving and ex-service personnel who are experiencing mental health problems. It is also why increased funding for our veterans is necessary and should be considered as a matter of urgency.

It has been a privilege to take part in this very important and timely debate. Thank you.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Following last week’s debate on remembrance commemorations, it is fitting that this week we are discussing support for veterans and the armed forces community, as Mary Fee said.

Although the armed forces and defence in general are still the responsibility of the UK Government, it is right that the duty of care is shared with devolved Governments and partners across all sectors. The establishment of the Scottish veterans commissioner has been a very important step in ensuring that there is continuous progress and improvement in supporting veterans and their families.

Those leaving the armed forces and choosing Scotland as their home for themselves and their families are greatly valued for the contribution that they make to life in Scotland. In the north-east of Scotland, many former armed services personnel have found employment in the oil and gas sector over the years. That is not least because of the many transferable skills that they gained during their time in the forces. The harsh environment that they experienced during their time in the forces may not be that different from life offshore, if they are working in that environment.

Nonetheless, the transition to civilian life can sometimes be problematic. I therefore welcome the offer of work placements and fixed-term appointments for veterans through the going forward into employment programme.

One enduring concern for those involved with the armed forces and their families is the education of forces children. Getting it right for every child has special resonance for children who may have had many moves during their education. I commend the work that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the General Teaching Council for Scotland are doing in that field. The GTCS is working to overcome barriers for teachers who may not have quite the right qualifications to work in Scotland, so that their qualifications can be recognised or so that they can get further qualifications.

The condition of the housing stock on bases for forces families has become an issue as we keep one eye on climate change and look to ensure that everyone has a warm, well-insulated house. It would be good to move towards more co-operation between the armed forces and local authorities on that. It is heartening that discussion with veterans charities has meant that bespoke homes are now being built for veterans with disabilities, if not at the pace that we would like to see.

The transition to civilian life is a smooth one for the majority of veterans. We should not forget that. However, that transition can be difficult for some. That can be compounded by the traumatic events that they may have experienced in action. Those may lead to PTSD, a condition that affects not only the person themselves but their whole family. Like many MSPs, I have had to help families in such situations.

As Maurice Corry said, there are many veterans charities and there is more co-ordinated help than there once was. Many well-resourced veterans charities offer help with the issues that I have mentioned and with both physical and mental health. Keith Brown and I visited such facilities when we were ministers and Graeme Dey and I visited veterans organisations in Aberdeen in summer 2019.

What stays with me is the necessity for peer mentoring. Some veterans reject help and counselling because they believe that those mentoring them cannot understand what they have experienced. I am pleased that veterans charities and organisations increasingly recognise the importance of peer mentors who have experienced those things themselves.

Charities have found it difficult to deliver services during Covid. I commend all those who continue to be there for those who need it.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

There is help for veterans in Scotland. No one should feel that it is not there.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

Many years ago, there was a saying that, if the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you with one. When I was a young Army wife, one of my first experiences was giving evidence to an inquiry into how to improve life for families and prevent soldiers from leaving the forces earlier than they might have done.

I am glad to say that the past 38 years have seen positive change, not least because of the partnership between the UK Government, the devolved Administrations and the private, public and third sectors. That partnership has been underpinned by a recognition that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen have a right to a family life. They should also be able to trust that the country they served well will not forget them after their service ends.

The annual report contains a number of welcome messages about the progress that is being made, despite the challenges thrown up by the Covid pandemic. The commitment to rolling out the Scottish veterans care network is to be warmly welcomed. I hope that the minister will tell us more about how the network will be promoted and how the Scottish Government will ensure that no veteran is unclear about where to go for help when they need it.

Ensuring that the first-class training that many service personnel receive finds equivalency in the world of work outside the forces is a positive step forward. There is absolutely no doubt that the British armed forces provide some of the best training anywhere in the world.

Despite efforts to increase the length and stability of postings, forces life still involves moving around and coping with separation. For children, having to move schools—potentially every couple of years—means the upheaval of making new friends, tackling a new curriculum if the education system differs, and re-establishing hobbies and club memberships.

Alongside that, service families often deal with stress and worry about their loved ones being sent to serve in an area of conflict. It is important that schools and teachers are given the skills to recognise and understand the impact of that on children. I am pleased that the update recognises that. Flagging school records so that all the people in a school know that a child has a parent who might be serving or away on active duty is an excellent step forward.

Building and sustaining a career can be difficult for the partners of serving forces members. In the modern world—especially when a serviceman leaves the forces and a family must settle—a dual income is often required, so it is important for a partner to build a career. If a person wants to move with their partner, they must be ready and prepared to change jobs and find openings where they can.

I am pleased that the General Teaching Council for Scotland is working with the Naval Families Federation to produce joint documentation—I hope that we will see it this month—that details requirements for teaching in Scotland. However, I ask the minister to say why the Scottish Government is not challenging some of the obstacles that the GTCS creates for teachers who are registered in other nations of the UK. Surely our schools could decide whether to employ individuals who are registered elsewhere. The requirement for an England-registered teacher to register with the GTCS strikes me as bureaucratic and unnecessary. It prevents schools in areas such as Moray from benefiting quickly and efficiently from the armed forces community when teacher shortages arise. I am also concerned that, if the pilot that is being run in colleges extends the GTCS registration requirement to college tutors, as is proposed, that will create further unnecessary barriers for people in armed forces families who wish to teach on postings to Scotland.

However, I will finish on a positive note. I echo the congratulations to the minister, Graeme Dey, because he has taken an extremely non-partisan and committed approach to our armed forces and veterans. We should all follow his example as time goes on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The extra time has largely been used up.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank the Scottish veterans commissioner for all his work, as I thank the minister, too. Perhaps it is a career-ending moment to be praised by Mike Rumbles, by Michelle Ballantyne and now even by me—for goodness’ sake.

I very much welcome the debate. I support many of the points that the Scottish Government’s motion makes, and I support the Labour amendment. The speeches that have been made show that there is a genuine cross-party desire to ensure that Scotland’s ex-servicemen and women are supported and protected during the crisis and going forward. On the future of the Black Watch, which was first raised by my colleague Alex Rowley and then by others across the chamber, including Keith Brown, I think that we speak with one voice.

My constituency has a large armed forces community that is made up of veterans and current forces personnel who serve our country at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde as well as all over the UK and much further afield. In my 21 years—saying it quickly means that it does not sound as bad—as an MSP, I have seen at first hand the complex and unique set of needs that veterans have and the huge contribution that they can make to their communities. I welcome the decision that was finally taken earlier this year to include a question in the census that will provide information on whether someone has served in Her Majesty’s armed forces.

Having a better understanding of the profile and needs of veterans is a key part of making sure that our public services are tailored for the armed forces community. However, there are legitimate concerns among trusted organisations such as Poppyscotland regarding the delay to the census. It is feared not only that the delay will result in Scottish returns being out of sync with those in other parts of the UK, but that it could hinder the planning and delivery of welfare services in the charitable and statutory sectors, which rely on accurate information about veterans and their families. Although members supported the census order, the issue can be addressed properly only by working closely with the UK Government to minimise the negative impact that the delay will have on our veterans and their needs.

I welcome Graeme Dey’s commitment to working continuously with the UK Government and the other devolved nations. He will know that I am a great believer in actions speaking louder than words. I will continue to take a keen interest in that developing relationship, not least in my role on the cross-party group on armed forces veterans.

I will turn to Covid, because servicemen and women have been actively engaged in meeting the challenges of the pandemic head on since the very beginning. Military personnel have transported vital medical equipment and resources to and from our hospitals and have contributed their time and energy by helping at testing centres across Scotland and in my community in Dumbarton and Helensburgh. At the height of lockdown, the Royal Air Force was also assisting with airlifting critically ill Covid patients from the most remote islands to hospitals, to ensure that they received medical attention as soon as possible. They have our heartfelt thanks from across the chamber for all that they have done to help and support our communities during tough times.

We all know how hard this year has been for many communities across Scotland, not least our armed forces community and all those who usually dedicate their time to supporting them. Organisations such as SSAFA, Poppyscotland, Veterans Scotland and many more carry out invaluable work that supports veterans and acts as a voice for them. Their ability to raise vital funds will have been severely impacted by the pandemic, and I hope that the Scottish Government will provide the support that those organisations need to survive the period.

It is also important to remember that armed forces communities are made up of so much more than just serving officers and veterans. The spouses and children of serving personnel and veterans have needs, too, but they also offer a huge amount of skill and talent to our local areas. I welcome the recognition of the need for family-specific support in the UK Government’s strategy for our veterans, which I am aware that the Scottish Government contributed to. I hope to see that continued support for our veterans and their families going forward.

I will leave the minister with two things to do. In particular, I will highlight a couple of areas that I have raised with him before. First, on additional funding for the education of armed forces children, some of whom may have additional needs, there is a need for more targeted funding from both UK and Scottish Governments at a local level for the schools that those children attend. Secondly, the spouses of military personnel represent a huge reservoir of talent—I say as gently as I can to Michelle Ballantyne that some of them may be men and not women—and they could be doctors, teachers or entrepreneurs, so let us encourage them. There are organisations in Helensburgh and elsewhere that do exactly that. I commend them to the minister and urge him to provide them with more support.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

As an ex-serviceman, I am pleased that there continues to be almost total cross-party support for improving support for the armed services and for the veterans of our armed forces communities. Long may that continue.

I also welcome the combined approach that has been taken by the UK Government and the three devolved Governments to create a joint strategy for our veterans—one that promises to improve support for and empower our veterans communities.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has presented new challenges to those communities, such as the cancellation of last week’s formal remembrance ceremonies, I am delighted to see that the UK Government has stepped in to provide more help in these troubled times. During the summer, extra funding of £6 million was made available to armed forces charities to support veterans and their families through the pandemic.

As we have heard, HeadFIT, a new online mental health service, has been launched to help everyone in our defence community. That is a very important step forward, because we all recognise that it is not just physical wounds that need healing. Sometimes there are mental challenges that lie hidden for years and are difficult to deal with, but which need to be addressed.

One measure that I have mentioned often since becoming an MSP and which would be a boost to our veterans community is an end to the threat of repeated historical allegations of abuse. For the past four years, I have cited the need to stop ambulance-chasing lawyers and politically motivated historical prosecutions such as those faced by a member of my regiment, Dennis Hutchings. Too many people sit comfortably in their armchairs and decide what they think is acceptable behaviour, and I believe that their judgments are ill informed and unhelpful. That is why I support the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which is making progress through the UK Parliament. The bill will offer some protection to veterans who face legal action, often decades after they have left the service. To my mind, the bill will right what is wrong, and I hope that all parties in the chamber will voice their support for it.

It is always difficult to follow Jackie Baillie in summing up—she has done a much better job than I will do, although I will do my best. I, too, want to condemn Graeme Dey’s future career by saying how well I think he has done. He has started to get into the terminology that we hear from forces personnel, such as “force multiplier”—he is almost becoming a soldier. I welcome all that he has done. He has given a huge amount of support, including in stressing the importance of the armed forces covenant.

Like Alex Rowley, I recognise that progress is being made and that there is a vital need for a veterans mental health plan. He mentioned the importance of the families that, together, make up our Army. It is those families—those regiments—that are so important in protecting veterans and helping them when they leave the forces. Maurice Corry also took up that point when he mentioned the importance of the regimental system. He stressed the importance of veterans societies and communities, especially the Veterans Gateway and SSAFA, which are two very important charities.

Like Mike Rumbles, I have seen things happening. He has struggled in this Parliament for a lot longer than I have to get everything that he wants in, but it is good to see that healthcare for veterans is now going to be delivered.

I join Annabelle Ewing in praising veterans communities for all that they do. I join her in saying that it is important that, across Scotland, we have local champions to stand up for our veterans communities. Peter Chapman mentioned the Office for Veterans Affairs, which is very important, as is the Unforgotten Forces Consortium.

Keith Brown is an ex-veterans minister and a veteran. I do not know whether I will damn his career as well, but I pay tribute to the work that he did in his ministerial role. We should recognise that in the same way that he recognised the work of Maurice Corry and Graeme Dey.

Mary Fee mentioned the importance of coming home and of combat stress. Maureen Watt made the important and salient point that we all have a duty of care to our armed forces veterans. On Michelle Ballantyne’s speech, I am not sure that when I joined I was ever issued a wife, but she made clear the importance of the family. I know that when I went off to do the things that I was asked to do by the armed services, my family stuck by me and made things happen at home.

We should never underestimate the sacrifices that our armed forces make to serve and protect our country, at home and overseas. They defend our country and are now helping to defend our health. We should never forget that they are always prepared to give their all and, in return, it is right for them to ask us to give our all for their families. The support that we are talking about is a small price to pay.

I cannot let the debate pass without saying that I believe that that support would be shown in the Scottish Government making a commitment to work with the UK Government now to ensure that, where possible, our troops can legally travel home for Christmas. That is the least that we can do.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

A rainforest has died today in the cause of my taking notes on members’ contributions this afternoon. As a former convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, I hope that I can do justice to that sacrifice during the next nine minutes or so.

Alex Rowley asked whether we are doing enough for veterans. The honest answer is no, but as he and other members acknowledged, considerable progress has been made. We will, however, continue in that vein only if we work in the spirit of collaboration. I commit the Scottish Government to doing that now and in the future.

On Alex Rowley’s amendment, which Jackie Baillie also focused on, I am happy to commit the Government to continuing to work with veterans’ charities to address the undoubted challenges that the pandemic has posed, and is posing, for them. There is helpful realism in the sector that, because of the wide impacts of Covid, charitable giving in a general sense will suffer.

The bigger charities have the option of deploying judiciously some of their reserves, and I know of instances where that has been planned for. For the smaller charities, of course, that is less of an option. Veterans Scotland, which the Government funds, is there to direct and assist charities, and I will speak at its annual general meeting next week when the topic will, undoubtedly, be covered.

Building on the unforgotten forces model of close collaborative working and avoiding duplication strikes me as one way forward for the sector. I hope that I can reassure Alex Rowley about the extent to which the sector and the Scottish Government are alive to current and future challenges.

In relation to funding, the sector has been able to access mainstream charitable funds. For example, a number of veterans’ charities applied to, and were successful in securing support from, the Scottish resilience fund. I do not have the exact number but, by way of illustration, more than 60 applications were received from Royal British Legion Scotland branches and clubs.

In addition, the Scottish veterans fund is available to charities, and there is £200,000 in it this year. We also held two events to provide support and guidance on completing the application form for that fund in an effort to encourage bids from newer and, perhaps, smaller projects. As I say, I hope that that gives Alex Rowley some reassurance.

Keith Brown commended Maurice Corry for his work with the cross-party group, and rightly so. He went on to talk about employment. I hold to the view that, central to making progress in that regard is getting employers in the private and public sector who proactively recruit from the cohort to evangelise about that approach and to make clear the benefits that they derive from recruiting from among veterans. It was also important that the Government played its part and gave an example.

Mike Rumbles was on familiar ground when he referred to equity of access to services. He acknowledged that the delay in the roll-out of the veterans care network had been unavoidable, and he asked for a detailed briefing for members. I am more than happy to commit the Government to doing that. Given their interest in the subject and their contributions today, I think that a number of members of the Scottish Parliament would benefit from hearing about the work that the network is going to do, and they might also contribute some thinking, as veterans and their representative organisations have already done.

As I am, Annabelle Ewing is a fan of the V1P model, but I am quite concerned to learn of her worries about housing adaptations, so I will be happy to meet her and discuss the matter in due course.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

Talking about V1P, I have a concern, as the minister’s predecessor knows. What certainty can the minister give to members that health boards will incorporate and deliver Veterans First Point services, given the challenges that his predecessor faced in previous times?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As Maurice Corry knows, we cannot instruct health boards to do that, but there is incentivisation through co-funding of the model. Furthermore, I view the future as being based on that model of access right across Scotland. The veterans care network can start to deliver such consistency in what is available, regardless of where in the country someone lives.

A number of members—Alex Rowley, Keith Brown and Annabelle Ewing—mentioned the Black Watch. I associate myself with their views and concerns. I will raise the issue in a virtual call tomorrow with Lieutenant General James Swift, who is chief of defence people. It might be that the story is wrong, but if it is not, I say—as Keith Brown and others have said—let us get together on a cross-party basis and say no to what is being talked of.

Mary Fee noted the importance of mental health services for veterans. I agree entirely. It is a driver for the new network, whether in creating better understanding of veterans’ needs or giving them greater confidence that they will be better understood if they present to mainstream services—the trust that Mary Fee talked about. If they ask for help, they will know that it will be available whatever their locality and on an equitable basis across the whole of Scotland, which is something that Mike Rumbles has championed.

Peter Chapman highlighted, rightly, the role of the military in responding to the challenge that has been set by the pandemic. That has been a timely reminder, for wider society and in relation to employment, of the skills that are gained through military service, and not necessarily just the obvious skills, but many others. I know that a number of departments in the Government have been very impressed by what they have seen in terms of what the military has to offer.

I thank Keith Brown—and others—for the kind words, but I have to acknowledge that I stand here building on the foundations that he established. We would not have made the progress that we have made on veterans issues without his original endeavours—not the least of which was the establishment of the veterans commissioner post.

Maureen Watt recognised the importance of peer mentoring. One of the most striking things that I have seen in my travels as veterans minister was a mentoring service within BT. It recruits proactively from among veterans and has a mentoring service to assist individuals to settle into their roles, which appears to work very well.

I will pick up on the issue about the General Teaching Council for Scotland and get back to Michelle Ballantyne on that. She also talked about spousal employment as an area in which we need to improve. I completely agree. I have made visits to various locations, including Leuchars and Faslane, where I met wives and heard the stories of their experiences. We can undoubtedly do better. Some of the most striking interactions that I have had in my role have been with wives and partners.

If we are honest, there is undoubtedly more that can be done, but I commend the work of companies such as Barclays that have reached out on spousal employment. When I visited Barclays, I was struck by how even little things can make a difference in accommodating spousal employment. There is a lot that we can learn, in both the private and the public sectors.

Jackie Baillie noted her disappointment about the delay to the census. I recognise that disappointment and entirely understand it. I hope that what she has heard from me today, and on other occasions, gives her some comfort that we will not allow a delay in obtaining the data that she was talking about to get in the way of improving service delivery for veterans and their families.

We have heard speeches from around the chamber that have highlighted issues that we already knew of. There is a willingness to pursue those; I look forward to doing that in the coming months.

The debate has been thoughtful and constructive, as debates on this subject tend to be. The Parliament is all the better for that. In keeping with that approach, I commit the Scottish Government to continuing to work collaboratively with our partners in the public, private and charitable sectors, and to continuing to build and develop new and effective partnerships, in order to improve our support for the veterans and armed forces community.