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.