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.