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.