The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03381, in the name of Keith Brown, on a Scottish approach to the mental health and wellbeing of our veterans in each community. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons or place an R in the chat function.
I am delighted to open the debate, as we emerge from the pandemic. The mental health of the whole population is a fundamental consideration for the Scottish Government, but we must be particularly mindful of the mental wellbeing of veterans, who have sacrificed so much for us all. Our veterans and their families have unique experiences that will have impacted on their mental health in numerous ways. We are truly grateful for their service.
I thank my colleague Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care, who proposed that we hold this joint debate, and I acknowledge the excellent progress that has been made in delivering the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”, which was produced by NHS National Services Scotland’s Scottish Veterans Care Network.
In the process of delivering the plan, veterans have told us that veteran mental health services are not available throughout Scotland—access currently depends on where someone lives—that veterans are sometimes unclear about what services are available and about where to go for help, and that some statutory services are aware of the needs of veterans and their families, but that is not universal.
I will use some of my time in the debate to describe how we will go further to make a difference for people who need help and support, and how lived experience will play a fundamental role in shaping that.
We are acutely aware of the challenges that the charitable sector has faced over the past two years and of the impact that the pandemic has had on the sector’s ability to deliver support. The response from our statutory bodies and third sector partners has been outstanding. An example of that is the move to delivery of innovative therapeutic services and counselling online. In addition to the pressures that have been caused by the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year affected veterans across the UK, and we know that veterans mental wellbeing services in Scotland experienced a significant increase in demand from veterans and family members who were concerned about their loved ones.
We continue to engage with charities and other service providers to ensure that veterans get the help that they need for their mental health. The Scottish Government has continued funding specialist mental health organisations for veterans, such as Combat Stress and Veterans First Point.
A number of priority areas are important to me, as the cabinet secretary with responsibility for veterans. I will touch on some of those.
In a visit to a drop-in centre last year, I heard first-hand from a female veteran who had continued to struggle with her mental health because of her experiences in the service. I was also able to hear about the benefit of having a local veteran-led service that understands the unique experiences of female veterans.
As well as our female veterans, we must also be aware of the specific needs of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community and of early service leavers. I support the UK Government’s recent commitment to an independent review of the pre-2000 treatment of LGBT veterans. That also includes a commitment to understanding better the support needs of female veterans and veterans from ethnic minority backgrounds. I look forward to the Scottish Government being able to contribute to and support delivery of those commitments. Through the Scottish veterans fund, the Scottish Government is funding the work of Fighting With Pride—a charity that supports the health and wellbeing of LGBT veterans. All our veterans need services that address their particular needs. To do that, we need providers that understand their experiences.
The United Kingdom Government has undertaken a consultation exercise on a proposal to waive the fee of £2,389 for non-UK service personnel who apply to settle in the UK at the end of their military service. That waiver would be based on their having served for 12 years, or having been medically discharged for reasons relating to their service.
In its response, the Scottish Government raised an issue that we had raised before the consultation process began: the excessive cost of immigration application fees and the need for a more flexible immigration system that meets Scotland’s specific needs. We are talking about people who have served in this country’s armed forces, but who are not being given the ability for them or their families to stay in this country, without paying a substantial fee. In our view, a requirement for 12 years’ service is too long. I do not believe that we should charge settlement fees to people who have served this country. We should not be excluding people because of their inability to pay; we should be including those who can contribute to our country. We want Scotland to be a country where our veterans are welcomed and their service is valued.
In its response to the consultation, the UK Government agreed to decrease the fee waiver stipulation from 12 to six years. Fees will be waived for those who have been discharged due to an injury or illness that is attributable to their service, irrespective of how long they have served. That is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is disappointing that the UK Government did not go further and align the fee waiver with the four-year reckonable service requirement that has been imposed by the Home Office.
Unfortunately, the UK Government chose not to make any changes to arrangements for the dependants of non-UK armed forces personnel. A more generous and compassionate approach to family migration policy is still required to ensure that our valued veterans, and their families, are able to settle and make their lives in Scotland.
The “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” highlights the need to look at what makes a good life in order to have good health. To underline the point that I have just made, I note that a veteran’s mental wellbeing is inextricably linked with the mental wellbeing of their family.
I am also acutely aware of the link between good mental health and having a warm and safe home, a job and a loving relationship. Members will be aware of our commitment to work collaboratively with stakeholders to improve services and support in those areas. That work includes the veterans employability strategic group and the veterans Scotland housing group. I have often thought that there is a tripod of support that can ensure that veterans can reintegrate into civilian life. That includes housing, health and employment. If one of the three is missing, that can cause major problems.
We commissioned the Veterans Scotland housing group to develop a pathway to prevent homelessness for veterans. I am pleased that its report was published earlier this year. I know that that issue is very close to the heart of the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care, who previously had responsibility for that matter. That was a collaborative process, and we want that spirit of collaboration to be mirrored in other contexts. We will continue to work closely with partners, including the armed forces community and the housing sector, to consider implementation of the 24 recommendations in the report.
Let me touch on employability. Most service leavers and veterans in Scotland enter work and are successful in the labour market, but we know that some face barriers to employment and that some, although they can get a job quickly, do not secure work that is commensurate with the skills and experience that they have gained from their time in the armed forces. At a time when so many sectors are reporting labour and skills shortages, it is more vital than ever that people who have skills and experience have access to the help that they need.
For those who need to reskill, a wide range of employment and skills support is available. However, despite the availability of advice and support, we know that some veterans are still unable to access the help that they need, so I acknowledge that we need to go further. We will continue to work with partners across Scotland to change that and to ensure that every service leaver and veteran who is able to enter sustained and fair work has the opportunity to do so.
The armed forces personnel and veterans health joint group is a key part of improving access to healthcare, and will continue to prioritise mental health. Other significant work that the joint group is progressing is to do with better identification of veterans in our healthcare system, to enable veterans to be signposted to, and to access, the support services that are most appropriate for their needs.
The joint group recognises that living with long-term physical health conditions as a result of military service can have a substantial negative effect on mental health. We are exploring how we can establish a service that will provide a comprehensive pathway and connect veterans to the right help for their physical and mental health needs, in recognition that the two are often linked.
I thank NHS National Services Scotland’s Scottish Veterans Care Network for recognising the issues that veterans raise and for producing a number of principles that are informed by those issues, in its “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”. The Government endorses the proposals that veterans should be able to access services easily and at the right time, and that people who provide services to veterans should understand their needs. The Scottish Government will continue the work of the Scottish Veterans Care Network, putting veterans at the heart of the implementation process.
If we are to deliver services at the right time and in the right place, it is vital that we have the right information. I am pleased that our understanding of veterans’ needs will be enhanced by the results of the 2022 census. We will also have access to the information on veterans that will now be included in Scotland’s three primary household surveys.
I have talked about some of the issues that veterans face when it comes to good mental health—housing, employability, pathways to help and support, early identification by the system, previous issues to do with a lack of good data, and stigma. Only through the cross-policy approach that I described, and with a focus on improving all those areas and more, will we be able to ensure that veterans can enjoy good mental health.
As we move to the next stage of the plan, we will establish a veteran-led implementation board, to lead on the plan’s delivery. I am pleased to announce the appointment of Mr Charles Winstanley as chair of the action plan implementation board. Charles is a veteran of impeccable standing, who has led delivery of services in the national health service and the third sector, as well as having experience of mental health research. The implementation board will report on its progress to me and to the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care. It will oversee the work of the Scottish Veterans Care Network and it will advise on the structural and funding requirements that will make the principles in the action plan a reality.
For many years, the Scottish Government has supported veterans and their families through the innovative work of Veterans First Point and Combat Stress. We have funded both organisations to provide mental health services for veterans and their families—none of that funding is recognised in terms of consequentials or money coming from Westminster specifically for that purpose, but that has never stopped us allocating funding and increasing it where we can.
I am pleased to announce today that we are providing further funding in the next year to the six Veterans First Point centres, which are in Tayside, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Arran, Fife, Borders and Lothian. Funding of £666,000 will enable the centres to provide mental health support to veterans and their families in the transition phase.
I can also announce further funding of £1.4 million for Combat Stress, so that the organisation can continue its important work. Combat Stress is relocating services to Glasgow and Edinburgh, thereby providing more accessible routes to support.
Before I conclude, I want to mention that the veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, will publish his final report later this month. His advice and recommendations on veterans health are another vital set of tools to inform our work. I place on record my sincere thanks to Charlie for his contributions during his 10-year period as commissioner, which will end in late March. On behalf of Scotland’s service personnel and veterans, and their families, I wish him well for the future.
I should say one or two things about the amendments. First, on the Labour amendment, I agree that, as we develop our new suicide prevention strategy, we should engage with organisations that represent veterans’ interests, thereby ensuring that we capture the right outcomes and actions that will be required to further mitigate suicide risk among veterans. The minister will say more on that, but I should say that we are happy to accept the Labour amendment, in that regard.
On the Conservative amendment, I looked at veterans debates in this chamber over 10 years or so and have never seen an amendment like it. The amendment would completely gut and fillet the Government motion, then reinstate some of the points in it. I do not know whether that signifies a departure. We have had a remarkable degree of cross-party consensus in veterans debates, which I know is appreciated and valued by the veterans community, but the Conservative amendment marks a departure and shows us how much Maurice Corry is missed.
I welcome the point in the amendment about the UK Government’s veterans recognition scheme and the support for the implementation of the action plan. It is important that veterans have, should they choose to do so, the ability to easily identify themselves as veterans when accessing services, so I welcome the UK Government’s plan to undertake a scoping study for provision of digital verification of veterans. However, I cannot support the Conservative amendment and regret the fact that the Conservatives have sought to undermine the debate.
I wholly endorse the key principles of the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”. There is cross-party consensus on the importance of that, at least, so I look forward to working with members across the chamber on supporting the mental health of all our veterans, their families and service leavers in Scotland.
That the Parliament recognises the importance of supporting veterans and greatly values the significant contribution that they continue to make in Scotland; notes the NHS National Services Scotland publication by the Scottish Veterans Care Network,
Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan
, setting out how it will take forward key principles to improve veterans’ mental health and wellbeing in Scotland, and understands that this action plan highlights the need to take an holistic approach that takes account of housing, employment, education and other needs, and work in partnership across the Scottish public, private and charitable sectors and with the UK Government to ensure that veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to services across Scotland.
I can inform the chamber that the time that we had available across the afternoon was exhausted earlier, so I will have to ask members to stick to their time allocations and accommodate any interventions within those allocations, if at all possible.
I thank the minister for his opening remarks. I am very pleased to open the debate on behalf of my party. The Scottish Conservatives believe that veterans must be able to secure the right help, at the right time, through access to mental health and wellbeing services that are timely, high quality and right for them as individuals. We recognise the importance of supporting veterans and greatly value the significant contribution that they make in Scotland today.
The Scottish Conservatives will always stand up for our armed forces, some of whom, today, are headed to eastern Europe to support NATO as it reinforces its eastern flank. Today, we thank each and every one of them for their service, as well as remembering those who have paid the ultimate price in defence of our freedoms. We owe them a debt of gratitude that must be realised by more than words and ceremonies, important as those are. That debt must be repaid by a commitment to look after veterans and their families throughout their lives—something that Administrations of all parties have, all too often, failed to do.
When we hear of a veteran who is homeless, we should feel a sense of collective shame. When we hear of a veteran who is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction issues, we should be ashamed. When we hear of a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or facing mental health challenges, we should all share a sense of collective shame. When we hear of a veteran who takes his or her own life, we should feel more than shame. It is simply not acceptable that people who were willing to lay down their lives for us then go on to take their own lives because of the adverse experiences that they faced. That is why, today, I will support the Government. We must answer a collective call for action, which is why the Scottish Conservatives welcome the 30 recommendations and principles in the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”.
We need to come together across Parliament to tackle those problems once and for all, and to do so in a timely way. That is why the Scottish Conservatives propose an armed forces and veterans bill, mirroring a similar move at Westminster in December. The bill would enshrine into law the armed forces covenant for devolved public bodies such as the national health service and local government. The covenant focuses on supporting members of the armed forces, their community and their families. It will support them to access education, secure a home, start a new career and access healthcare or financial assistance, and it will provide them with discounted services. The bill would deliver specific provisions to enhance the benefits and support that are available to veterans as they transition into civilian life.
Let me be clear that, while the vast majority of veterans leave their service greatly enhanced by their time in the military, the extent of mental health problems for those who have served in our armed forces remains unclear. The Scottish veterans health study shows that veterans with long service histories are, in fact, less likely to suffer a range of health-related conditions compared with the general population. Rates of mental illness among UK ex-service personnel are generally lower than rates in the general population, at one in five, compared with one in four in the general population.
However, the Ministry of Defence still reported 1,578 medical discharges in 2020, of which 34 per cent were on mental health grounds. Roughly 50 veterans a year declare a mental health difficulty at the point of discharge, although there are many reasons why difficulties might not be declared at that point. I am therefore pleased that the Scottish Parliament agreed that the 2022 Scottish census should include a question on previous service in the UK armed forces. The information that we get from that will provide a far more accurate picture of the geographical spread of veterans in Scotland, and it will overcome the limitations that mean that it is difficult to estimate the numbers and locations of veterans in Scotland, let alone to explore their mental health.
We must be committed to getting veterans the help that they have earned and the support that they deserve. I commend those organisations that work with our service personnel and veterans. They include the Scottish Veterans Care Network; Combat Stress, which provides a range of community, out-patient and residential mental health services; the Royal British Legion; Poppyscotland; and Forcesline, which is a free, confidential helpline that is completely independent of the military chain of command.
We know that a significant group of service leavers are more at risk of poor mental and physical health because of a number of factors. They include veterans who are younger; veterans who are unemployed; veterans who are unable to work due to long-term illness or disability; service personnel who identify as LGBTQ+ and were forced, shamefully, to hide their sexuality; those personnel who, because of institutional homophobia, faced dishonourable discharge; veterans who are single or divorced; female veterans, who are highlighted as an at-risk group for suicide; black and minority ethnic service personnel; early service leavers, who show higher rates of heavy drinking, suicide and self-harm; and deployed reservists, who are at higher risk of mental health problems. We also know that veterans who present to mental health and wellbeing services in Scotland may have experienced a wide range of issues.
Based on that information, there is clearly a case for highlighting veterans as a priority group. There is a need for the Governments across the UK to develop specific, tailored mental health services for veterans. It is important that we take a four-nations approach, so I welcome “The Strategy for our Veterans”, which has the backing of all four Governments. Although delivery will look different across the country, all parts of the UK, by signing up to the strategy, are committed to a shared vision. The collective ownership of the strategy has been welcomed by the third sector. Chris Hughes of Veterans Scotland has spoken of how that approach puts veterans’ needs before party politics, which is of course where they should be.
I support the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” and I call on the Scottish Government and its agencies to assess and, wherever possible, implement its 38 recommendations. As our amendment makes clear—I hope that the cabinet secretary will reflect on the fact that it is meant to be constructive—we want a timeline to be put in place so that veterans do not have to wait for five or 10 years for the issues to be addressed.
The measures that we want to be put in place include the expansion of telephone support services, the creation of a Scottish veteran community online resources hub, the development of quality outcome indicators to support mental health and wellbeing services for veterans by enabling them to demonstrate outcomes and enhancements, and the development of an all-important anti-stigma campaign to encourage veterans to seek support where it is required. I say to the minister that, without deadlines, there is no effective plan.
According to Veterans Scotland, there are currently more than 30 organisations that provide health and wellbeing support to veterans, and they run a multitude of projects in their respective communities. We should support them, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement of additional funding out of the record £41 billion settlement that we have from the UK Government.
It is sobering to consider the young brave Ukrainians who are returning to their country to take up arms against Putin’s revolting regime. Those brave individuals are willing to die for their country and to put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good. Our young servicemen and servicewomen have shown the same sense of selfless commitment at home and abroad for generations.
Let us be in no doubt that the bombs and missiles that accompany the drumbeat of war in mainland Europe today will affect many of our own veterans. It will reawaken past trauma and open old wounds. Those who have served in our armed forces have earned our respect and a debt of gratitude. Their mental health challenges can no longer go ignored. Their welfare is our responsibility. They served to keep us safe. We owe them their safety, and we cannot allow their welfare to be overlooked for any longer.
I move amendment S6M-03381.1, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:
“believes that veterans must be able to secure the right help at the right time through access to mental health and wellbeing services that are timely, high quality and right for them as individuals; recognises the importance of supporting veterans and greatly values the significant contribution that they continue to make in Scotland; notes the NHS National Services Scotland publication by the Scottish Veterans Care Network,
Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan
, setting out how it will take forward key principles to improve veterans’ mental health and wellbeing in Scotland; understands that this action plan highlights the need to take an holistic approach that takes account of housing, employment, education and other needs, and work in partnership across the Scottish public, private and charitable sectors and with the UK Government to ensure that veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to services across Scotland, and, while recognising that the plan suggests timelines for delivery on the principles will vary across Scotland, believes that the Scottish Government and partner agencies should aim to assess and implement the 38 action plan recommendations within 24 months, and, furthermore, welcomes the introduction of the Veterans’ Recognition Scheme by the UK Government, which will ensure that veterans can more quickly, easily and securely prove that they served in the UK Armed Forces, and access the services that they need.”
I begin by sharing the sentiments from across the chamber of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, who are showing such immense bravery in the face of continued aggression from Putin’s barbaric regime. I extend my solidarity to many of the Russian conscripts, who are clearly caught up in a situation that they did not expect to get caught up in. That exploitation is also worthy of condemnation.
Members of our veterans community are owed a huge debt of gratitude for their service to our country. Whether they served in European conflicts many decade ago, in conflicts in the middle and far east or in the Falklands war, each and every one of them should be immensely proud of their commitment to defending our country, often in the darkest of times.
As someone who has been a member of the Army reserves for more than a decade, I know on a deeply personal level the sacrifices that members of our armed forces make. Their role is a vocation; it means spending huge periods away from their family and friends, and it often leaves them isolated from civilian life. That is why I am delighted that the Scottish Veterans Care Network report and recommendations have finally been published. I am particularly pleased to see the emphasis that is placed on mental health and wellbeing services, which feature prominently in the report.
Poor mental health is incredibly prevalent in the veterans community, for obvious reasons, and I have concerns about the pandemic having exacerbated the situation in recent years. We know the particularly stark impact that isolation had on our veterans community. In 2021, the number of veterans who died as a result of suicide was at its highest level since 2005. The issue has been a cause of huge concern for a long time. That is why our amendment calls for veterans who are at risk of suicide to be specifically considered in the Government’s new suicide prevention strategy for Scotland. The strategy has, to be frank, taken too long to be developed, and its publication has been delayed until September 2022. Nonetheless, the strategy is welcome, and I thank the cabinet secretary for indicating that he will support our amendment to the Government’s motion.
I welcome the recommendations in the Scottish Veterans Care Network report that veterans should have equal access to mental health and wellbeing services, regardless of where they live, and that each NHS board, in collaboration with health and social care partnerships, should have a dedicated community-based mental health and wellbeing service for veterans. The report highlights the significant geographic variation in service provision and the lack of clarity on who to contact initially for help. When veterans ask for help, they often get lost in a fragmented and unresponsive system. Concerns were also raised about the lack of co-ordination between NHS community services and broader third sector provision. The situation has the potential to prevent veterans who are seeking support from accessing it, and that can often be catastrophic. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I hope that the steps that I have outlined will ensure that it does not.
The recommendations on providing support at the right time are also warmly welcome. We know that support is most effective when it is sought out, and our services require significant flexibility to be able to react at short notice. It is fair to say that, currently, the system around support services is incoherent, the services are variable in quality and not all veterans who seek help are able to access it quickly enough.
I welcome the suggestion that UK support services should have access to information on Scottish services and to other sources of information. Our veterans community is often highly mobile, which means that continuity and consistency of information, regardless of where people are located, should be of paramount importance. Ultimately, we are seeking to simplify a complex system, and small improvements such as that could make a huge difference to saving and improving lives.
I welcome the general points in the report about developing an anti-stigma campaign while improving public awareness, knowledge and understanding of veterans’ needs. Most of us will know someone who is classed as a veteran, but we might not always be aware of their needs or the type of tailored support that would be helpful to them. In combat situations, disinformation can be rife, and it is easy for public perceptions to become clouded and for veterans to be stigmatised as a result. I therefore warmly welcome the recommendation on an anti-stigma campaign. It is an honourable thing for people to serve their country.
Overall, there is much to be welcomed in the report, although there are some wider points that could and should have been included. For years, stakeholders in the sector have been warning of an information vacuum. To fully understand the needs of the community, we need to understand the community itself, but data on veterans is often scarce, disjointed and outdated. The community is traditionally difficult to define, and we have no definitive or conclusive understanding of the size of the community or its other characteristics. The report mentions the collation of increased data, particularly through the new census question, and intelligence to improve our understanding of the community. I welcome that, but I remain concerned with the pace of progress.
When we talk about the community, we are talking about not just the veterans but their families. One challenge with using the census data is that additional data mining will be required to identify the spouses and families of veterans. It might have been easier to encompass that in the first phase and to capture the information straight away.
My friend raises an extremely important point about data interdependencies. That metadata will be critical to building a network of understanding about dependants of veterans and some of the wider implications of that—they are often people who have lived in service accommodation.
I am concerned about the report in that sense, although it seeks to address the perceived gaps in the system. When veterans and their families fall between the cracks, that has real-life consequences. Just this week, I was contacted by the daughter of Donnie Watt, an 85-year-old veteran from Glenrothes in Fife. Donnie was an intelligence officer for the Royal Air Force in Berlin during the cold war and was diagnosed with dementia in 2017. Since then, he has been confined to hospital wards in Fife and, in the past five years, has spent just five months at home with his family. Donnie’s daughter Jane feels that veterans’ complex medical needs, as in Donnie’s case, are being overlooked in a stretched national health service.
The health and social care partnership that is responsible says that Donnie’s case is complex and that veteran-specific needs are difficult. I do not think that that is good enough. That does not mean that Donnie and other veterans like him are not worthy of the bespoke time and care needed to make them comfortable. The problem is that we do not know how many people like Donnie are out there. Until we collate and analyse all the data that is available to us, we will never know, and veterans such as Donnie will continue to suffer diminished quality of life.
I recognise that complaint, and it is certainly one that I made frequently when I was a member in the House of Commons. I accept that we have made a breakthrough, but let us exploit that to its full potential.
I urge the Government to take those points into consideration.
I move amendment S6M-03381.2, to insert at end:
“; acknowledges the recommendation in the action plan that veterans who are at risk of suicide should be considered in the Scottish Government’s new Suicide Prevention Strategy for Scotland; notes that this strategy is now not due to be published until September 2022, and calls for the Scottish Government to update the Parliament, in advance of its publication, on the action taken to develop and deliver veteran-specific suicide prevention training, and improve access to mental health support for veterans.”
I apologise to members, as I will have to leave the debate early.
I am privileged to speak for my party in this important debate, and I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for securing parliamentary time for it. In recent days, we have been served with a grim reminder of the horrors of war and the horrendous toll that it takes on all those who are caught up in it, none more so than those who serve on the front line. As we look on in horror at the events in Ukraine, we see the actions of those who stand in defiance of the outrageous and barbaric actions of the Putin regime. No one could argue anything other than that those who are holding the line are exhibiting a staggering degree of heroism and sacrifice that is common to veterans the world over.
As a Quaker, I find the idea of armed conflict very difficult. I am repelled by it. However, one can hate war with every fibre of one’s being but still give thanks for the service and sacrifice of those who fight it. Those positions are not mutually exclusive. We are incredibly fortunate that thousands of our servicemen and women step forward in times of crisis so that the rest of us do not have to. Today, it is absolutely right that we recognise that bravery and honour their sacrifice.
My office has been in touch with the veterans mental health charity Combat Stress, which shared with me the compelling story of a veteran who served 12 years in the RAF. I would like to share his experience with members. He wrote:
“My problems started once I’d retired. I don’t want to talk about all I saw and what I went through in Northern Ireland but it’s definitely what caused my mental health issues. My wife saw that I was struggling to sleep, having nightmares and flashbacks. Loud noises really bothered me, so I avoided going into town as I had flashbacks of going out on patrol. I was always hyper aware of my surroundings. My mind felt locked ready to protect and defend. Everything came to a head when one day I was out and I heard a car backfiring, I just ran, I was crying, in a total panic. Luckily a policeman realised I was a veteran, understood my panic and got me home. I knew I needed help.”
Sadly, it is not uncommon for some service personnel who left the armed forces many years ago to still be struggling to adjust to civilian life. They are still fighting the wars that the world has long since left behind, and all too often they do not know where to turn. The invisible scars that they bear can have a knock-on effect on their family relationships and employment. As we have heard in the debate, the incidence of homelessness and drug misuse among our veteran population is disproportionately high. Veterans sometimes face delays in accessing mental health treatment as a result of stigma or gaps in provision.
I am thankful to the many great organisations such as Combat Stress, Poppyscotland and Help for Heroes for stepping in to fill the void that has, sadly, been left by the Scottish Government in this area. I will give one example. Over the past 12 months, Combat Stress has carried out nearly 5,000 appointments with 526 veterans across Scotland. As wonderful as the work of our veterans mental health charities is, they are still reeling from two years of the pandemic and the massive impact that that has had on their ability to raise funds.
It is not the third sector alone that should be providing the support that our veterans so sorely deserve—the state has a duty, too. It is, after all, the state that sends servicemen and women into harm’s way, and it is the duty of the state to care for them on their way home and when they return. I am sure that we can all agree on that. It is vital that national health service boards, health and social care partnerships, local authorities and the third sector are appropriately supported to enable them to meet the needs of all veterans.
I am pleased that the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” has been published, and that—as I understand it—veterans charities were given the opportunity to help shape it. Nevertheless, during the debate, I have received texts from a veteran who is angry at what he has heard. Although the cabinet secretary’s words are warm, we are still being outstripped by England. Last year, NHS England began the roll-out of Op Courage, its new scheme for supporting veterans’ mental health, which fast tracks veterans into mental health support. It would be very helpful to understand whether the Scottish Government has looked at that approach and at what aspects it can emulate up here, or whether it will simply adopt Op Courage in Scotland right now, because such a scheme is needed.
All veterans should be able to access the same high standard of support, no matter where they are based, and any wait for access must end immediately. In the documentary “Thank You For Your Service”, army psychologist General Loree Sutton said:
“We were not allowed to speak of the unseen wounds of war. We were not allowed to prepare for them.”
Our veterans deserve the utmost respect and acknowledgement for the sacrifices that they have made while carrying out their duty in the service of this country. It is now our duty to ensure that they are given all the support and care that they need, so that there is the prospect that those unseen wounds might, in some way, begin to heal.
I very much welcome the scheduling of the debate, both because of the importance of the subject matter and because it represents a potential sea change in bringing together the support that is afforded to those in our veterans community who require it, wherever they may live.
The “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” is a significant step forward in Scotland’s commitment to supporting those veterans who have paid a legacy price for their service. The fact that the recommendations are a co-production between people who know and understand what it is to operate in the armed forces, those who work with veterans and those who have expertise in health and mental health and service implementation gives them important added credibility.
I will go back a little in recent history, to offer credit where it is due for the position in which we find ourselves today, with the Scottish Veterans Care Network established and the plan being taken forward. First, the part that has been played by Eric Fraser, the former veterans commissioner, in all that must be acknowledged, as it was his report, “Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing: A Distinctive Scottish Approach”, that set us off in that direction.
At the risk of embarrassing him, I also acknowledge the role of the cabinet secretary, for it was Keith Brown, when he previously had responsibility in the Government for veterans, who established the post of veterans commissioner. Credit should also go to him for the part that he played in getting us to where we are today, and I wish to say how pleased I am to see him once again holding that responsibility.
It is widely recognised that, in many ways, Scotland does better by its veterans and their families than other countries, but that has never generated, nor should it ever lead to, complacency. We have always strived to do better, and the creation of the Scottish Veterans Care Network is proof of that. For me, the action plan is clear evidence of the network already proving its worth.
As was claimed by former MSP Mike Rumbles, who championed this cause in the previous session of the Parliament, there was, historically, a degree of postcode lottery about access to services for veterans, which, in my opinion, was almost entirely born out of a lack of understanding, more than anything else, but it was there. Where services were good, they were very good, but where they were not, at the heart of the problem was a failure to grasp the point that veterans—at least, those who are in most need of support—do not always readily seek it, especially if they feel that they will be dealing with folk who do not understand them or what they have been through. Even when they want help, they may have little idea of how to access it. That is why the establishment of the care network and the implementation of the action plan are so essential.
We need all our veterans to have direct access—on their doorstep, where possible—to the services that they and their families require. Today’s announcement about the implementation board to oversee all of that is very welcome. As the action plan highlights, to deliver what we will need will require flexibility, depending on population size and rurality. In some places, we will need to establish a new and distinct mental health and wellbeing service. We will need to be creative around pathways and to make use of digital resources and technology. As others have noted, the 2022 census will be essential in helping us to better understand where our veterans are located so that we can shape and provide the services that they may need as best we can.
It is important to recognise that the vast majority of service leavers adapt to civilian life very well. However, MOD figures show that, of the 1,578 medical discharges from the forces in 2020, just over a third were on mental health grounds. We also need to remember that the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder is often delayed—sometimes by as much as 14 years. There is no doubting that a need exists, and will continue to exist, for mental health services and more—and the “more” really matters. As the plan highlights, a better joined-up and holistic approach is needed, where matters such as housing, education and employment are addressed and the needs of the wider family are taken into account.
There is no questioning the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting our veterans community. There are many in that community who, while they might not necessarily share the politics of this Administration, would willingly attest to that. Most recently, that has been seen with the Scottish Government stepping in to provide financial backing for the unforgotten forces consortium and the creation of a £1 million fund to provide direct financial relief to those third sector organisations that support our veterans in Scotland. There has been a commitment to increase the Scottish veterans fund to £500,000 per annum from 2022-23, and the cabinet secretary’s announcement today on V1P—Veterans First Point—and Combat Stress is hugely important.
There has been on-going, specific work in other areas—in housing, education, mental health and social isolation. However, there is more to be done, and the action plan points the way in that regard. I particularly welcome the recommendation that the community-based veterans mental health and wellbeing service should include peer support workers, and I also welcome the requirement for the planned regional implementation teams to include veteran navigators.
Of all the recommendations that are contained in the action plan, perhaps recommendation 2.3 is the one that best demonstrates how switched on the plan is, as is evidenced, in particular, by the specific call to
“Develop processes for Early Service Leavers with complex psychological needs.”
That is a cohort that we all know requires particular attention.
For me, the action plan represents a major step forward in the development of the kind of pulled-together support that ought to be available to our veterans, wherever in Scotland they reside. If we can deliver on it in full, then, alongside the excellent work that continues to be done by the veterans third sector, we really will have a truly holistic, first-class offering for our veterans.
There is much to be done to ensure that the plan’s ambitions are realised in their entirety, but its content and the cabinet secretary’s comments today leave me with a sense of optimism. On that note, I encourage members to support the motion in Keith Brown’s name.
A n estimated 5 million veterans live in the UK at present, and a further 20,000 personnel leave the armed forces every year. When they leave, their healthcare automatically transfers from the military to the national health service. According to figures from HM forces, only around 0.1 per cent of regular service personnel are discharged annually for mental health reasons. Sadly, however, many veterans develop mental health problems after leaving the service. Many experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, ex-military personnel experience many of the same mental health problems as the general population, although their experiences during service and the transition to civilian life mean that their mental health may be adversely affected by factors such as PTSD, depression and anxiety. Tragically, only half of those who experienced mental health problems sought help from the NHS—and those who did so were rarely referred to specialist mental health services. Worryingly, levels of alcohol misuse, overall, were substantially higher than in the general population.
Veterans’ mental health problems may be made worse or caused by post-service factors such as difficulties in making the transition to civilian life or marital problems and the associated loss of family and social support networks.
Young veterans are at a high risk of suicide in the first two years after leaving the service and are vulnerable to social exclusion and homelessness, both of which we know to be risk factors for mental ill health.
Does the member agree that a particularly difficult cohort is those whose discharge is unplanned—for example, if they have failed a compulsory drugs test—and that they are often not given the necessary support into civilian life?
Absolutely. Our veterans can find themselves in different and unique situations. Those need to be addressed in a unique and proper way.
The position that many veterans find themselves in is unacceptable. It is vital that they are able to secure the right help at the right time, through access to mental health and wellbeing services that are timely, of high quality and specifically tailored for them as individuals, and not a one-size-fits-all approach.
It is important that servicemen and women who choose to settle in Scotland on leaving the forces know from the outset that they are settling in a land fit for heroes—a place that offers support for them and their families that is at least on a par with the support that is offered in other parts of the UK. I support the action plan, and I call on the Scottish Government to accept its recommendations and to fund it generously, so that our veterans can fulfil their potential and can access appropriate support when they face difficult times.
At present, Scotland has a range of quality services. Sadly, however, as we have heard, that support can be haphazard. The veterans commissioner concluded that it
“can be piecemeal on occasions and often quite limited for those with the most complex and difficult conditions.”
The commissioner has previously urged the Scottish Government to publish a mental health action plan. I hope that the minister will do that as a matter of urgency, because it is vital that the Scottish Government works with NHS Scotland to produce an action plan for the long-term delivery of services and support.
I know and appreciate that the UK and Scottish Governments have worked together in the past to publish a joint strategy for our veterans. That collaboration needs to continue in the future, for the good of all our ex-service personnel.
I will highlight a few things that involve veterans who live in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries—in particular, the wonderful Veterans Garden Dumfries, which provides a safe place for serving armed forces personnel, local veterans and their families to meet up for a cuppa and a catch-up, as well as to provide mutual support when needed. It is truly a wonderful example of how people can help one another in times of need. The garden is immaculately kept, and it helps to create a sense of wellbeing and togetherness. The men and women who look after it deserve great credit.
To put party politics aside, it would be remiss of me not to mention the tremendous work that is carried out by the region’s armed forces champion, the Labour councillor Archie Dryburgh, who was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s new year’s honours list in 2019. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Archie—a former Gordon Highlander—had to wait for more than two years before he was presented with his medal, which he was awarded in recognition for the way that he spearheaded the region’s commemoration events for the first world war and the Quintinshill disaster.
Archie has always made the welfare of serving and ex-forces personnel and their families a priority. He is also heavily involved in organising another event later this month, after Dumfries and Galloway Council honoured the Royal British Legion with freeman status for its 100 years of service to veterans and their families.
I put on record the work of South West Scotland RnR, which the former veterans minister, Graeme Dey, visited. That charity works alongside First Military Recruitment and has trained more than 60 former forces personnel to become heavy goods vehicle drivers. Such schemes provide hope and help to many of our ex-servicemen and women.
The Scottish Conservatives will always stand up for our armed forces. We thank each one of them for their service, commitment and sense of duty, as well, of course, as remembering those who paid the ultimate price. We owe them a great deal of gratitude.
I thought that I had changed identity for a moment, Presiding Officer.
It is a bitter irony that, as we debate the issue, men and women on both sides in Ukraine are dying and being injured in a conflict that is entirely manufactured. It is an invasion of a sovereign, independent nation in Europe by a bellicose and expansionist regime that is led by a paranoid megalomaniac, Vladimir Putin.
In my lifetime, we have sent troops to the Falklands, to Iraq twice and to Afghanistan. Each war is horrendous and destructive for generations. Today, with mobile phones providing instant, local reporting, we are there with the people and soldiers who are risking life and limb. It reminds us—if we needed reminding—of the cost of conflict.
Representing Penicuik, with the Glencorse barracks nearby, and the Borders, which has centuries of tradition of army service, I have long held an interest not only in where we send forces into conflict and why, but what happens on their return.
In my time in the Parliament since 1999, the MOD has gradually recognised its duty of care to troops not only on the front line but on their return and for years afterwards. That is perhaps exemplified most by the armed forces covenant—a statement of the moral obligation that exists between the UK, the UK Government and the armed forces. It was published in May 2011, and its core principles were enshrined in law for the first time in the Armed Forces Act 2011. I quote:
“we acknowledge and understand that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society they serve with their lives.”
The 38 recommendations of the “Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” for veterans are based on three key principles, but I will focus on one:
“Veterans will have equal access to mental health and wellbeing services, regardless of where they live”—
I note the reference to the postcode lottery in previous times. That access should focus
“on keeping veterans and their families well by providing support for the wider determinants of mental well health and wellbeing”, with services provided
“as close to home as possible”.
In 2014, the Scottish Government appointed a Scottish veterans commissioner—as colleagues have said, the current commissioner is Charles Wallace, who had 35 years of Army service—to act as an ambassador for improvements in supporting veterans. Wales is announcing a commissioner this year. I am not aware of England announcing one, but I recommend that it does.
The Scottish veterans fund was initiated in 2008-09 and has received £1.7 million for more than 180 projects. Last year, the Scottish Government committed to increase the annual fund to £500,000 from 2022-23.
I will focus on the veterans employability strategic group, which has membership from the private sector for the first time. The Scottish Government is launching a public awareness campaign about it because, as the cabinet secretary said, health, a happy home, employment and helping families are interlinked.
I accept that many veterans return to civvies without any issues, but there are stresses in doing so. It is difficult to fit in with employment demands, although veterans’ skills are often transferable. The mental health transition and recovery plan, which was published in October 2020, had a specific commitment to identify
“prevention opportunities in relation to veterans at risk of suicide”, which other speakers have referred to.
Locally, we have the veterans centre in Dalkeith, which serves my constituents in Midlothian south. It is located in the heart of Dalkeith town centre and is primarily designed as a drop-in centre, with no appointments being necessary—at least, that was the case pre-Covid. The aim is to advise and support former members of the armed forces, reservists and their families throughout Edinburgh and the Lothians through any disadvantage that they have post service. It has a small team of dedicated staff, who are readily available to tackle any challenges that present, however minor or complex. I understand that the centre has bacon roll mornings every Friday—I fancy going to one of those. They are extremely popular, with a great atmosphere, and are, naturally, well attended.
There is also the Veterans First Point in Galashiels, and I note that the cabinet secretary announced further funding for Veterans First Point initiatives. Veterans First Point provides support and advice for ex-forces personnel, their families and carers. The team includes veterans as peer support workers, as well as clinicians and therapists, who listen and help.
For years, we have been aware that, due to the disconnect when they leave the forces, and perhaps their experience of conflict, some veterans go into a downward spiral, with relationship break-ups, addictions, homelessness and even criminality.
We have not always treated our veterans well, even when they were still serving in the armed forces. In Iraq, from 2003 to 2008, they had poor equipment, the wrong shoes and the wrong vehicles. Sadly, it is also the case that, following the 1990-91 Gulf war, veterans had to fight for recognition of Gulf war syndrome. As my colleague Graeme Dey said, post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in many ways and over a long period of time.
Finally, I say this: we politicians—although perhaps not those in this chamber—are the people who send our armed forces into conflicts, mainly because we have failed. Therefore, we have a huge to duty to them once they have been discharged, whatever condition they are in when they are discharged.
I associate myself with the comments of colleagues on the unfolding horrors in Ukraine. Once again, I offer my solidarity to the Ukrainian people.
I thank Keith Brown for bringing the debate to the chamber. I know that veterans’ affairs are close to the cabinet secretary’s heart and to the hearts of many colleagues across the chamber—including, not least, the heart of my Labour colleague, Paul Sweeney.
It was great to hear Finlay Carson speak about Councillor Archie Dryburgh, who is a good colleague and someone with whom I worked very closely when I was at East Renfrewshire Council and we both served on the Association for Public Sector Excellence. The comments about him were well made.
When we talk about mental health, it is clear that enormous strides have been made in wider society in recent years. Whether it happens through having conversations with a loved one or with a stranger on the street, it is good to see the whole country moving along a more positive path and talking about those issues. To illustrate that point, my office recently held a time to talk day coffee and catch-up, when we all took a moment to support one another with conversations about our mental health. That brought home to me that, with regard to veterans, we need to think more about how we tailor our approaches and conversations to support people who have been involved in active service over many years. From all the contributions today, it is clear that we have more to do in that regard.
I commend the work of the Scottish Veterans Care Network, including the development of its action plan for tackling veterans’ mental health challenges. The report is to be welcomed, and I hope that all the recommendations will be not only accepted but fully implemented by the Government. It is vital that we ensure that we have adequate funding for that.
The third principle of the plan states:
“NHS Boards, Health and Social Care Partnerships, Local Authorities and the Third Sector should be appropriately supported to meet the needs of veterans and develop and deliver Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Support and Services.”
It is vital that the Scottish Government gives those bodies the right support and funding to ensure that the principles can be achieved. Alongside that, we in the Parliament must be able to track changes to ensure that they are fully implemented and that sustainable funding is provided over the years.
Accountability is incredibly important in ensuring that veterans feel fully supported when they retire from their service. We know the sacrifices that have been made—everything from risking their lives for our country to spending an unimaginably long time away from their families, which can cause anxiety and emotional strain. That should encourage us to do our very best for them, as they have done for us.
We also know what amazing assets veterans are to our communities and workplaces. Servicemen and women are adaptable and incredibly well trained, and have a work ethic like no other. We must ensure that we harness their potential and fully support them to transition smoothly into civilian life, wherever they choose to go.
Like colleagues, I will take a moment to highlight the amazing contribution of the third sector and charitable organisations. I am thinking in particular of Erskine, which is based in my West Scotland region, and the work that it does year on year to support people with housing and benefits issues or, indeed, to get them back into the workplace.
I, too, welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments on LGBT+ veterans and the work that will be done to better understand their needs after long misunderstandings about their particular mental health challenges. I am thinking in particular of those who served prior to 2007, when the UK Labour Government ended the ban on LGBT+ people serving openly in our armed forces. It is clear that more work needs to be done to understand the needs of LGBT+ people coming out of our armed services.
It is also clear that tragic situations continue to unfold for veterans across our country. Indeed, throughout the pandemic, we have seen more veterans suffer from increased anxiety, isolation and job loss, with services being either absent or perhaps slower to respond to their needs. We have heard previously from the Scottish veterans commissioner the call for strengthened strategic leadership and for an effort to be made to support partnerships across Scotland.
In some ways, it is regrettable that the new suicide prevention strategy has been delayed until September 2022, because too many lives are being lost and we need to take real and meaningful action as soon as possible. As Paul Sweeney has already mentioned, Scottish Labour is clear that the Scottish Government must update Parliament in advance of the strategy’s publication and action being taken to deliver veteran-specific suicide prevention training and improved mental health support. We very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s acknowledgement of our amendment in that regard.
Those who have sacrificed the most for our country deserve the best care possible. Although priority has been given to the healthcare of veterans, we cannot become complacent about the quality of services, including mental health services. My party and I will continue to call for greater access to and availability of support services for our Scottish veterans.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am a councillor on Aberdeen City Council.
Last week, a family member WhatsApped me with a link to a JustGiving page asking me to
“please donate to Scott’s Ultra challenge”.
That Ultra Challenge run was a 40-mile run that took place last weekend in memory of a promising young soldier who took his own life last year, following a long struggle with mental ill health. Scott was not a veteran, but when I read his story, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss, which was perhaps subconsciously compounded by the events that are unfolding in Ukraine. I suspect that, for many, that is making the futility of conflict feel very real and frightening.
In recent years, the focus on the mental health of armed services personnel has increased. Media coverage and the work of armed forces charities has raised public awareness of the impact on our veterans of mental health conditions such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.
The perception that service personnel leave the armed forces mad, bad or sad is stigmatising and harmful. The majority leave having had a positive experience. The sense of community that the military environment offers can make an invaluable contribution to their mental health.
Around 2,020 veterans live in Scotland. Understanding that community is essential to ensuring that, as Charles Wallace, the veterans commissioner, outlines in the new “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”,
“no more veterans suffer due to gaps in service provision or lack of awareness of the help” that already exists. Much of that service provision requires understanding the risk factors for veterans, including age, employment status, housing and homelessness, the pandemic and gender.
Recently, I spoke about female veterans in a debate, and highlighted the disproportionate challenges that women face from harassment, discrimination, sexual assault and other behaviours, which impact on their mental health and can place them at higher risk of self-harm and suicide. I note that Paul Sweeney’s amendment makes reference to the new suicide prevention strategy and the opportunity to consider veterans within that.
I also highlight the risk from extremism—far-right rhetoric, in particular, which can feel attractive and in line with the way that an individual might view the world, particularly following their experience of active service. That might seem to be a far cry from life in Scotland, which to a great extent it is, but it is nonetheless a factor that I consider requires on-going monitoring.
As has been highlighted, the Scottish Government has already made available £1 million in direct relief to support the armed forces community in Scotland. It has made available additional funding to organisations that provide support to veterans and serving personnel and has continued funding for the unforgotten forces consortium, which is a partnership of charities, including Combat Stress, that are already doing excellent work in Scotland. The Scottish veterans fund has provided more than £1.7 million to more than 180 projects, and the £120 million mental health recovery and renewal fund reflects the priority that is placed on improving mental health in Scotland.
In terms of services and support, the veterans’ mental health and wellbeing action plan sets out the key principles around equity of access to services, accessing the right help at the right time and ensuring that services meet the needs of veterans. At this point, I highlight the case of a constituent whom I supported—a veteran who was, during lockdown, experiencing extreme anxiety arising from the behaviour of neighbours. During a housing needs assessment, he was advised that
“any further negative impact on a pre-existing mental health condition caused by neighbours’ behaviour is not relevant to the housing assessment process” and
“these mental health issues do not prevent you accessing or functioning in your home”.
There was no understanding of his vulnerability as a veteran. Therefore, I ask the Scottish Government to ensure that support for veterans is not undermined by local approaches that seem to be unintentionally process driven, rather than trauma informed.
The plan also highlights the important role of strong social networks. I give a nod to Chris and John at the Portlethen and District Men’s Shed in my constituency. They are both veterans and are compassionate, supportive and welcoming. Aberdeen South and North Kincardine is also home to the Gordon Highlanders Museum, which is a tribute to the men of one of the finest regiments of the British Army and a place for veterans to come together to reflect and remember.
Finally, I highlight the issue of veterans in custody and prison, who are often highly vulnerable and in poor mental health. As the cabinet secretary knows, the Criminal Justice Committee made, in our report “Judged on progress: The need for urgent delivery on Scottish justice sector reforms”, a range of recommendations on remand, problem drug use, rehabilitation and alternatives to prison, which are all highly relevant to veterans. I ask that progress on our recommendations be made at pace by the Scottish Government and criminal justice partners.
To conclude, and perhaps most importantly, I pay tribute to all serving personnel, veterans, their families and the people who are supporting them, and to Scott and others, whose struggle with mental health was lost too soon. We thank you, we will work for you and we will remember you.
Like all members, the Scottish Conservatives want servicemen and servicewomen who choose to settle in Scotland on leaving our armed forces to know that they are settling in a land that is fit for heroes and that offers them and their families the most generous support in any part of the UK.
When I was out in my constituency last night, I met a veteran who, like all of us, wants to live and take an active role in their community. Members can imagine that we had quite an interesting discussion, given the current state of affairs in Europe. That veteran continues—as we all do—to be as patriotic as ever.
We support the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”, and call on the Scottish Government to accept its recommendations and fund it generously, so that our veterans can fulfil their potential and get the support that they need. The plan, which was developed with the Scottish Veterans Care Network and published in December 2021, aims to ensure that veterans can lead healthy and positive lives and reach their full potential by accessing timely and high-quality wellbeing and mental health services, no matter where they live.
The action plan has been developed through extensive engagement and collaboration, and it makes 38 recommendations, as we have heard. Contributors to the plan included but were not limited to 80 veterans, integration joint boards, NHS colleagues, third sector veterans organisations, mental health and wellbeing services, the Ministry of Defence and national NHS boards. Although we recognise that the plan suggests timelines for delivery on goals, those will vary across Scotland, which is why we believe that the Scottish Government and partner agencies should aim to assess and implement the action plan’s 38 recommendations within 24 months.
As well as supporting the plan, the Scottish Conservatives have proposed an armed forces and veterans bill, in order to stand up for our soldiers. The bill would enshrine in law the armed forces covenant for devolved public bodies such as the NHS and local government. The armed forces covenant focuses on supporting members of the armed forces community in accessing education, having a home, starting a new career and accessing healthcare, financial assistance and discounted services. That is important to me, living where I live, in close proximity to Dreghorn and Redford barracks.
The Scottish Conservatives fought for our service personnel to be exempt from Scotland’s higher tax rates. The Scottish National Party broke its 2016 manifesto promise not to raise taxes. Its higher taxes were set to target more than 7,000 of our armed forces personnel. After my Scottish Conservative MP colleague John Lamont raised the issue in the House of Commons, the UK Government stepped in to provide a Scottish income tax mitigation for personnel earning more than £28,443.
I will not. Thank you.
That means that members of the armed forces will receive the same income, regardless of where they are domiciled in the UK.
We called for the introduction of a specific veterans help-to-buy scheme, to give veterans and their families more support when buying a home in Scotland. That idea to help people to get on the property ladder was shot down by the SNP. We would help to reinstate help to buy, and we would set up a specific element of the scheme to support armed forces veterans to step on to the property ladder and build their lives and homes in Scotland.
I will not at the moment, thanks.
Invaluable work is done by non-government organisations. I pay tribute to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association—Forces Help, whose representatives I met in West Lothian prior to my election to the Scottish Parliament, because my sister was a volunteer with the charity. It is a UK charity that has groups across the country that provide lifelong support to serving men and women and to veterans of the British armed forces and their families and dependents. SSAFA helps the armed forces community in several ways, including with issues of addiction, relationship breakdown, debt, homelessness, post-traumatic stress, depression and disability.
As we have heard today, it is imperative that we recognise the stresses that families face when they support service personnel who are having difficulties. Partners often struggle as they support their loved ones, whether they are on active service or coming to terms with what they have faced. SSAFA focuses on rebuilding lives.
We want to make Scotland an attractive part of the UK for people who leave the armed forces to settle in. It is clear from what I have said today that the Scottish Conservatives continue to strive for that, day in and day out. The Scottish Conservatives will always stand up for our armed forces. Today, we thank each and every one of them for their service, and we remember those who have paid the ultimate price.
One in 10 UK armed forces personnel was seen by military healthcare services for a mental health related reason in 2020-21. Although that represents a fall in numbers from 2019-20, that might be attributable to a reduction in routine and training activity during lockdowns.
As “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” states, the Ministry of Defence reported 1,578 medical discharges across the UK in 2020. It is estimated that 34 per cent of those discharges were on mental health grounds. If that is taken as a proportion of the size of the veteran population in Scotland, that would equate to approximately 50 Scottish veterans per year declaring a mental health difficulty at the point of being discharged.
Veterans therefore need access to mental health support and treatment, just like the rest of us, although, as others have noted, stigma is a specific factor. We must also acknowledge that veterans are exposed to stressors and experiences that most of the general population do not face, and that any mental health support must be person centred.
As we have heard, the action plan is based on three key principles. It focuses on veterans having timely access to well-planned mental health and wellbeing services, no matter where they live. It is vital that those principles be adhered to, so that no one slips through the cracks and is unable to access the support that they need. Some of the issues that we see are similar to those that we have previously discussed for the general population, but some treatment will be specific to veterans. As a party, Greens would always advocate for peaceful resolution, rather than armed conflict. However, we recognise that person-centred care is important for those who have been involved in conflict to ensure that they can deal with their experiences.
As the motion notes, we must deliver holistic care that takes into account the entirety of an individual’s needs. That will include services such as housing and rehabilitation, where appropriate. That care should also take account of family situations, and of children in particular. It is hard not to refer to the situation in Ukraine while taking part in this debate. For those who have experienced armed conflict, the blanket coverage of the current war might be retraumatising. I encourage anyone who is experiencing deterioration in their mental health because of that to seek help.
I would also like us to consider how we can support the children of people who have been involved in war. I am sure we have all seen in the past few days children in the news who have been forced to flee Ukraine and who tell reporters that their fathers have stayed behind to fight. Information and pictures from war are much more available to young people than they were previously. I hope that we will be able to give the appropriate support to children of veterans and to anyone who comes to Scotland from a conflict zone. Where appropriate, that should be whole-family support.
There should also be an appropriate mix of treatment, including counselling and trauma support services, to provide support in the most appropriate format for individuals. As with health support for non-veterans, we must ensure that people are asked to explain their trauma or symptoms only as often as is necessary. Some current practices mean that people might have to repeat their story many times to various clinicians. It is important to ensure that we can share data effectively. Any veteran who is disabled as a result of their deployment should not have to repeat their story every time they need physical support. That should be the same for mental health support.
We must also consider unmet need. The action plan highlights many reasons why individuals might not declare difficulties on discharge, including issues of discrimination and stigma. Studies have shown that stigma is particularly problematic for people in the armed forces, where physical and psychological resilience in the face of adversity are promoted and valued.
PTSD can develop years after a traumatic experience. Delayed onset PTSD might make it difficult to determine the true extent of mental health problems among veterans. A study that was published last year by researchers from the University of Glasgow highlighted that
“The risk of suicide among UK military veterans remains unclear. Few recent studies have been undertaken, and most studies found no clear evidence of increased risk.“
It is clear that we need more research into, and a better understanding of, veterans’ mental health.
The action plan highlights many risk factors that can lead to veterans developing mental health problems, and rightly notes that LGBTQ veterans might be at greater risk of poor mental health due to the discrimination that they have historically faced in the armed forces. It also highlights older female veterans as a group who are at risk of suicide. It is vital that mental health services for veterans take the needs of at-risk groups into account and develop tailored support for people who might have experienced discrimination in the armed forces.
The action plan also notes:
“The intake of Black and Minority Ethnic service personnel increased by 110% between March 2019 and March 2020 in the UK. Mental health and wellbeing services should therefore be cognisant of this growing cultural diversity in the future design and development of services.”
As I said, we need person-centred services that seek to treat the individual and which do not view veterans as a homogeneous group of people with similar experiences. It is vital that that approach be supported by good data collection, not only on mental health outcomes for our armed forces personnel and veterans, but on the demographics of the armed forces.
I welcome the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan” and the Government’s commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of veterans. Veterans have specific needs and need dedicated support that takes account of the unique stressors that they have faced. The action plan represents an important step towards delivering truly person-centred care for Scotland’s veterans.
Veterans, service personnel and their families contribute a huge amount to our society. I welcome the great strides that the Scottish Government has made towards ensuring that our veterans and armed forces community receives the best possible support and care, including as we emerge from the pandemic.
While they served, veterans might well have been involved in operations that were integral to our safety, security and wellbeing. Their duties might have placed them in dangerous situations, which could have had a significant impact on their physical and psychological health. The current situation in Ukraine demonstrates that. We see the turmoil as people flee and families are split up as civilians stay behind and put themselves in harm’s way. All of that will have consequences for wellbeing.
From the outset, I note the role of the third sector in promoting the importance of our veterans’ health and wellbeing. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting the third sector as we move forward on Scotland’s journey to becoming a wellbeing economy.
The Scottish Government accepted the recommendations in the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s paper, “Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing: a Distinctive Scottish Approach”, and commissioned the Scottish Veterans Care Network to draw up a veterans mental health and action plan.
The action plan’s 38 recommendations are based on three key principles, which are worth repeating. Principle 1 is:
“Veterans will have equal access to mental health and wellbeing services, regardless of where they live”— that includes veterans in rural areas, which is an important issue in my region of South Scotland. Principle 2 is:
“Veterans should be able to access the right help at the right time”, and principle 3 is:
“NHS Boards, Health and Social Care Partnerships, Local Authorities and the Third Sector should be appropriately supported to meet the needs of veterans”.
To meet those principles, the Scottish Government has made available £1 million to create a fund that will provide direct financial relief to third sector organisations and projects, including the veterans garden at the Crichton campus in Dumfries and Galloway, which I will talk about a wee bit later. The Scottish Government has been able to continue to fund the unforgotten forces consortium, which is a partnership of 16 civilian and ex-services charities, and it has contributed £500,000 over the next two years to support those organisations’ work to improve the health, wellbeing and quality of life of older veterans in Scotland.
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government is working to ensure that all veterans and armed forces personnel have access to suitable and safe housing and do not end up homeless. Following consultations with the housing sector, including the Veterans Scotland housing group, the Scottish Government published “Housing to 2040”, which is Scotland’s first long-term housing strategy. It is welcome that, since 2012, more than £6 million has been made available to deliver more than 100 homes for veterans in Scotland. In the context of that work, I pay particular tribute to Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership, which has undertaken veterans awareness training and has been part of the veterans housing allocation scheme in Scotland.
Across my South Scotland region, fantastic individuals and organisations are committed to supporting our veterans and former armed forces personnel. At the Crichton campus in Dumfries, Mark Harper and his dedicated group of volunteers and local veterans run and maintain the Dumfries veterans garden. Their focus is on supporting ex-service personnel by giving them a safe space in which to socialise, learn, garden and access confidential advice and support services, with a focus on PTSD. The Veterans Garden Dumfries runs a monthly breakfast club and drop-in centre, which provides participants with access to relevant information and advice, with support from NHS Dumfries and Galloway and the Crichton Trust.
In 2021, I was able to support and work with The Veterans Garden Dumfries and NHS Dumfries and Galloway to secure endowment funding for the garden. It meant that a relationship could be solidified between NHS mental health services and the Veterans Garden—a relationship that has proven to be massively beneficial. That funding has also allowed Alcohol & Drugs Support South West Scotland to work with the Veterans Garden and to have a drop-in service for everyone. I thank the chief executive of NHS Dumfries and Galloway, Jeff Ace, and Mark Harper, the veteran who runs the garden, for their work. Mark Harper won the volunteer of the year award at the Scottish veterans awards. I ask the cabinet secretary to join me in congratulating Mark on the success of Dumfries veterans garden and invite him to visit it when his diary allows.
I also pay tribute to Robin Hood, who is a former veteran in Dumfries who has been instrumental in supporting SWS RnR and Nithcree heavy goods vehicle training. Graeme Dey will know what I am talking about, because he visited a couple of years ago, when he was the veterans minister. Nithcree Training, with funding from the Scottish Government, supports veterans to train to obtain their HGV licence and security licences. The charity has supported and funded more than 187 veterans not only to achieve their HGV licence but to enter into further employment. It is a great example of how local initiatives can be hugely successful in supporting our local veterans.
I welcome the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to support our veterans, especially in addressing stigma. It seems that, in every mental health debate, we discuss the need to tackle stigma. I realise how important the issue is and have raised it in a number of debates.
I encourage the Government to continue to support the third sector, and I support the Government’s motion.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, but it is right to echo the words about the situation in Ukraine, which brings so much of what we have talked about this afternoon very close to home. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for his comments about widening the debate. The debate needs to include our veterans’ families. As the cabinet secretary said, it is almost a tripod situation whereby, if we cannot get right every part that surrounds a veteran, we fail not only the veteran but those around them.
Those who have served—our veterans—are part of our community. They are our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, and, too frequently, our children, and they are a valuable asset in Scotland’s workplaces and in Scotland’s future. Only at the weekend, I was speaking to a major employer who had nothing but praise for veterans who came into their business, saying that veterans brought skills and a can-do attitude that that employer could not find elsewhere. Veterans were prepared to share with younger members of the team a way of doing things that perhaps those who had not served were unable to see.
It is important that, when those who have served come to the end of that career—be it through time, injury or choice—there is a smooth transition into their civilian life. I echo Graeme Dey’s comments about an holistic approach being needed towards that group. Finlay Carson powerfully vocalised the fact that there needs to be a tailored transition into civilian life that reflects the individual service personnel’s experiences in the armed forces and the fact that such a tailored approach should continue for that individual in their civilian life.
I echo Christine Grahame’s comments about the armed forces covenant and the importance of talking about families. I would like to discuss that issue, not to detract from the needs of our veterans as individuals but to highlight a group that surrounds our veterans and that, indeed, is often the first to notice a difference in those individuals. I pay tribute to the charities and groups that work with veterans’ families. I had the great privilege of meeting Forces Children Scotland, which is the renamed Royal Caledonian Education Trust, which works not only with the children of serving families but with those of veterans.
It is a very hard group to identify. The Ministry of Defence does not appear to know even how many children of serving personnel there are, let alone how many children of veterans there are. The change in the census is welcome, because, unless we can quantify that group and identify their locations, we will not be able to offer the tailored help that those young people need and are crying out for. We need to help them to share their experiences and be part of the solutions.
I had the privilege of listening to some children of armed forces personnel as they talked about the difficulties that they have in civilian life. They talked about dealing with other children, who are sometimes more open minded than some adults, and the challenges that they find when they move to a new area, change schools and have to tell their story yet again and explain why they need different, specialised and individual help.
Forces Children Scotland has collected some quotes from young people. One that I would like to share is about the mental health of a young person, who said:
“I couldn’t attend all CAMHS appointments as ... school couldn’t provide travel to all the appointments. CAMHS then discharged me because of the length of time between appointments.”
It is tragic that a young person who had got to the top of the child and adolescent mental health services waiting list should suddenly lose that place because they were unable to travel to the appointments. I find it unbelievable that an adult could treat a young person in that way and not, as we would hope people in Scotland would, take the extra step and find a way to help them.
My call on the Government has been partly answered with the reference to the data that is already being collected, but I will suggest another approach. If the SEEMiS computer system that is used across our education service could be used to identify young people whose parents or carers are serving in the armed forces, are in the reserves or are veterans, we would be able to collate a central database of those young people so that they could be identified and an individualised, holistic approach could be taken, with support that meets their needs. It would also empower the adults who surround them to point out their almost unique position as a group of young people who require very specific, individualised help, which the young people are often only too keen to share with those adults.
I would be grateful if the Government took the opportunity to look at that, because, just as we have veterans champions who sit within our local authorities and some employers, it might be very good to have a young person’s voice for the families of our veterans, serving personnel and reserve forces.
The shocking events that are taking place in Ukraine, where soldiers and ordinary Ukrainians find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to take up arms to protect their homeland against the unprovoked and unjustified invasion by a foreign army, must serve as a reminder of the debt of gratitude that we all owe to those who, over the generations, put their lives on the line to protect this country. That gratitude extends to those who serve today.
I am sure that all members will agree that veterans, service personnel and their families contribute a huge amount to our country, often in difficult circumstances, and that the least that we can do to thank them is to provide adequate support and access to the diverse range of services that they may require on leaving the forces. That must include adequate provision for former personnel who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
Despite many financial challenges, the Scottish Government has increased direct investment in mental health support to £290 million a year while also taking action to support veterans charities and the important work that they do day in, day out.
Like colleagues across the chamber, I welcome the Scottish Government’s acceptance of the recommendations in the Scottish veterans commissioner’s “Veterans Health & Wellbeing” paper and the fact that the Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Veterans Care Network to create the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”. As the local MSP for two islands, I am particularly keen for progress to be made with regard to principle 1, which underpins the recommendations. It highlights the need for veterans to have
“equal access to mental health and wellbeing services, regardless of where they live”.
I thank the staff at NHS Ayrshire and Arran, which has been identified as one of six Scottish health boards that allow veterans to access NHS community-based and veteran-specific mental health and wellbeing services through first point centres, such as the one in Irvine. Organisations ranging from Combat Stress and SSAFA to Forces Children Scotland and Men’s Sheds all help veterans with their mental health and wellbeing. Although most armed forces personnel do not have mental health issues during their service or, indeed, afterwards, we must be proactive in assisting those who do.
The armed forces covenant is important, but it does not appear to include one specific group. I wish to raise the issues that British nuclear test veterans have faced. I have spoken about that matter in the chamber in years gone by.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of operation hurricane, Britain’s first atomic test, which was carried out in the Montebello archipelago off Western Australia. From 1952 to as late as 1991, many thousands of men, often when they were on national service, were ordered to take part in 45 nuclear weapons tests and 593 so-called radioactive trials in Australia, the United States and the south Pacific.
Many young men were ordered to sit on a beach, with their backs turned to the blast of the first explosion, and to cover their eyes with their hands. In most cases, due to the heat of the tropical sun, they were only lightly dressed, and they were not issued with any personal protective equipment. In fact, many nuclear test veterans report seeing the bones inside their hands like an X-ray negative before there was a flash of light and a giant mushroom cloud formed in the sky.
Several weeks later, many servicemen started feeling unwell, suffering the after-effects of radiation exposure and sickness. During the seven decades since operation hurricane, many reported developing cancer as a result and said that their wives had miscarried repeatedly and that their children had been born with physical and learning abnormalities. The impact on the mental health and wellbeing of such families as a result of their experiences is incalculable.
One test veteran, Ken McGinley from Johnstone, was sent, aged 19, to Christmas Island, where he was exposed to five nuclear tests, including the UK’s biggest-ever bomb— codenamed grapple Y—on 28 April 1958. Like many other nuclear test veterans, he later became sterile and developed a rare blood cancer, and he was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
It is shocking that successive UK Governments have, time after time, refused to pay compensation to the many veterans such as Mr McGinley who suffered ill health as a result of taking part in the tests. The UK Government even resisted awarding those veterans a medal for their service, arguing that
“they were not exposed to the same imminent danger as those on active service.”
Ken McGinley did not give up. In 1983, he founded the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association to gain recognition and restitution for British personnel who participated in the British and American nuclear tests and clean-ups, along with scientists from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and, indeed, civilians.
Last Thursday, on the morning that Russia invaded Ukraine, the UK Health Security Agency finally published the result of a new study that examined the mortality and cancer incidence among men who took part in the UK’s nuclear weapons tests between 1952 and 1967. That latest research involved the study of a cohort of 21,357 servicemen and male civilians from the UK who participated in the tests. It was found that those test veterans were 3.77 times more likely than the control group to die from chronic myeloid leukaemia, which is a type of bone cancer that the report says is “radiation-inducible”. For example, half the crew of the destroyer HMS Diana, which was ordered to twice sail through the fallout plume following operation mosaic in 1956, died from tumours.
Sadly, the new research only confirmed what nuclear veterans had known for a long time, although most of them have unfortunately since passed away without ever having been given the respect that is owed to them by UK Governments that spent millions of pounds on trying to deny them compensation.
We owe a great deal to all servicemen and servicewomen who risk life, limb and their mental health to keep us safe. The Scottish Government is on the right track in ensuring that veterans and their families receive the best possible support and access to services across Scotland.
I hope that the latest research on the mortality and cancer incidence among nuclear test veterans will encourage Scottish ministers to renew their calls to the UK Government for immediate compensation and a medallic recognition for such veterans, and to join the cross-party exhortations for a public inquiry into the injustices that so many veterans of nuclear testing have faced.
In closing for Scottish Labour, I thank everyone who has taken part in this very informative debate. I thank members for sharing the often heartfelt stories about constituents across Scotland. It is important that we discuss such matters in the chamber and that we thank people for their contributions to looking after us all. We know so much about the importance of that at this time.
I share the thoughts and wishes of members across the chamber as we pay our respects to those who have fallen in war or have suffered injury and particularly the often-hidden pain that is associated with mental health issues, which today is rightly receiving the attention that it deserves. As we have stated, Scottish Labour supports the action plan and feels that it is important that the actions in it happen as quickly as possible. As my colleague Paul O’Kane mentioned, it is important that we pin down on-going financial support to make the actions happen for people.
We have all watched the terrible scenes from Ukraine this week with increasing horror, and they have been an apt reminder of the brutal and unforgiving nature of war. Many people in our communities remain victims of war, and those who have served perhaps feel it most acutely, and will be doing so at the moment. As we have heard from many members, the struggles that follow can continue for decades. We know that a great many people who have left the military are at heightened risk of suicide because of their experiences and perhaps the lack of support that they have received. That needs to be a thing of the past and, as we have heard today, we can take steps forward.
I thank Finlay Carson for mentioning all the work that Archie Dryburgh has done. As an MSP for South Scotland, I, too, know Archie, who is a serving councillor. I will certainly take Mr Carson’s comments back to him to let him know that we appreciate all the work that he does for veterans in the area.
Like many other members, over the years, I have met and worked alongside members of our armed forces community during campaigns and outreach work and, in that time, I have been struck by their deep sense of commitment and dedication not only to their country but to those who went before them. They also have a great commitment to the places where they live, which Audrey Nicoll expressed very well.
Many of the charities and community groups that we all work with on a daily basis have people with a forces background at their heart who are using the skills that they have learned to improve the places where they live. If we can reflect that sense of commitment and help them to get the fair treatment that they deserve, we will have given something worth while back to those people, who have done so much for our country.
With that in mind, my party believes that it is important that the Scottish Government includes considerations relating to veterans more prominently in the new suicide prevention strategy. I was glad to hear the minister make a commitment on that. Specifically, we want the strategy to deliver veteran-specific suicide-prevention training and to improve access to mental health support for veterans. Currently, the offer is far from adequate in many places. We have heard that the situation can be different around the country, but it is only fair that people receive a parity of service. That could save lives in the short term and in the years to come. I therefore reiterate the importance of supporting Scottish Labour’s amendment and I join my colleagues in asking the Government to update the Parliament on that issue as soon as is practically possible.
Achieving those reforms will help us to recognise the significance of the physical and mental effects of war on those who fought and on their families. With that in mind, I support the action plan and believe that we should look more holistically at the situation for veterans and do more to ensure that they have better access to employment and health services, as many members and the minister have said. We all know that that has to happen to make things better for people.
Crucially, we need an understanding that many people who leave the forces face a very uncertain housing future. That is an important point that has been raised many times in the chamber previously and today. Uncertainty about housing has a direct and lasting impact on anyone’s mental health. Of course, for our veterans, who have moved about so much, it is important that they have a sense of where their home is. I recognise and welcome the debate about housing, but I hope that we can have further clarity on how we will support people who face housing issues. The situation is not acceptable, and we should reflect that across the UK.
Reaching out involves giving veterans and their families a place to talk. I therefore welcome the work of groups such as Veterans First Point Ayrshire and Arran in my community, which helps people with a forces background to find jobs and housing while providing a supportive outlet for them to share their experiences.
Equally, in my area, there are many active chapters of the SSAFA—the armed forces charity—and the Royal British Legion, and we have heard about the work that is going on in other constituencies. Those organisations do exceptional charity work for their own members and those in need across the region. All those groups play a massive part in helping to solve the issues that we have been speaking about today, and many members have mentioned and congratulated them. However, as with all things, decisive funding from central Government is required too, and I hope that we can ensure that funding for those important charitable organisations continues.
I close by drawing attention to a more recent struggle with which the armed forces have helped us. I refer, of course, to their vital role in the pandemic.
I am aware that I am out of time, Presiding Officer, but I thought that it was important to share that contemporary aspect—
I thank Keith Brown for bringing today’s debate to the chamber. As an Opposition MSP who is responsible for the community safety brief in my party, it is my job to challenge and ask questions of the cabinet secretary. It is fair to say that that is not always harmonious, but in the debate today it is important for me to acknowledge loudly and clearly Mr Brown’s past military service for our country as a Royal Marine, and I do so with absolute respect. I will come back later to the points that he made about my party’s amendment to his motion.
As a new MSP, I had the privilege of laying a wreath at the cenotaph in Paisley on remembrance Sunday. When silence fell, I was overwhelmed by profound feelings of admiration and appreciation for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that we often take for granted. I did so as a civilian, surrounded by men and women who have served or are still serving. I think that it is a reasonable assumption that civilians such as me, and indeed most of us, can never truly appreciate what it is like to fill the boots and shoes of our army, navy and air force personnel.
That realisation is even more pronounced today, as we watch with growing shock, sadness and disgust what is happening in Ukraine. The horrors of war have never been more visceral or more vivid, captured on high-definition smartphones and beamed around the world in an instant. The stories of heroism and tragedy can overwhelm us. One that hit me especially hard was the murder of a 10-year-old girl called Polina and her parents, who were gunned down in the street by Putin’s death squads.
While we pray for peace and for Putin to be brought to justice, it is humbling and emotional to witness ordinary Ukrainians taking up arms to defend their territory, their democracy and their freedom. That includes people from all walks of life, including parliamentarians like us. Few among us can imagine what that would feel like, but there are some who know. I have already mentioned the cabinet secretary, but we are fortunate that many other members, past and present, have also served. They include Paul Sweeney, who is sitting on the benches opposite, and my Scottish Conservative colleague Edward Mountain, who spent 12 proud years in the Blues and Royals and who would very much like to be here today. There is also the former Scottish Conservative member Maurice Corry, who devoted decades to the British Army and who still chairs the Parliament’s cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community. I know that Mr Corry and the CPG have long championed the rights of veterans living in Scotland.
In his 2015 report, “Transition in Scotland”, the first Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, talked about the difficulty that he experienced in transitioning from a life in naval uniform to being a civvy. We are familiar with stories of service personnel struggling to cope as they leave behind a military life of discipline and structure. Many years ago, I spoke with a man called Tom Howard—a former Parachute Regiment medic who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Falkland Islands. I was delighted to discover that Mr Howard’s personal testimony has now been recorded and posted on a veterans video archive website. However, although he was fortunate to overcome his demons, others are not so lucky, as Mr Sweeney touched on in his very moving contribution.
While the narrative of the broken soldier has taken root, I will echo a very important point that was made earlier by Mr Hoy. The media giving voice to veterans in need of help can lead to a public perception that, as Mr Hoy put it, all veterans are broken—whereas, in fact, the vast majority of them make the transition to civilian life greatly enhanced by their time in the military. However, as Mr Hoy also said, it is a matter of “collective shame” whenever a veteran who has put their life on the line for us does not get the support that they need if they fall victim to homelessness, addiction problems, mental health challenges or suicide.
The main substance of today’s debate relates to the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”, which has been jointly published by NHS Scotland and the Scottish Veterans Care Network. The Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, provides the foreword for this substantial and detailed report, which contains 38 recommendations based on three key principles.
To summarise, the first of those principles is to ensure that
“Veterans will have equal access to mental health and wellbeing services, regardless of where they live”; the second principle is a guarantee that
“Veterans should be able to access the right help at the right time”; and the third is that they are supported by the NHS and a wide range of other organisations.
All of us here today are in agreement with each other about the contents of that document. However, my party has put forward a very sensible amendment to the motion that seeks to ensure that those shared sentiments are assessed and implemented within a defined timescale of two years. I am disappointed at the cabinet secretary’s accusation that that is an attempt to undermine the Government motion. That is absolutely not the case. I am advised that parliamentary rules do not allow for multiple amendments in different places. We all know how, without an explicitly stated commitment on delivery, even simple and effective reform for which there is consensus can sometimes become tangled in red tape and withered by inertia.
Although I commend the amendment in Mr Hoy’s name, my party agrees with the substance of both the Scottish Government motion and the Labour Party’s amendment. I hope that, in the cause of mutual agreement in this important debate, they can support our amendment in the spirit in which it is intended.
I begin, as many other members have done, by talking about the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine and the impact that it is having on the Ukrainian people, as well as the impact that it is having on people here. Gillian Mackay was right to point out that the situation in Ukraine may well be retraumatising people here and now. People can get help: they can contact Breathing Space on 0800 83 85 87 if that is the case.
I thank members for their valuable contributions today. There has been a lot of consensus across the chamber. As the cabinet secretary has already pointed out, we will support the Labour amendment—and I will talk more about that later.
Veterans continue their service in Scotland once they have left the forces. Veterans I know personally work as electricians or have been police officers, and the veteran to my left, Mr Brown, now serves as a cabinet secretary in this place. Last year, one of my officials had her car rescued by a veteran who was a support worker with the AA. When he heard that she worked in mental health policy, he recited this poem to her, explaining the sometimes devastating impact of mental ill-health. It is called “The Enemy from Within”:
“This is a warning to all former brothers-at-arms so they know that they may still be at harm.
At harm from who I hear you say.
We left all our enemies in lands far away.
This enemy has many faces but none you will see.
He will whisper and taunt without reprise.
Filling every thought even in your sleep.
He tells you and shows things you never want to see again
Making him stronger and bringing you pain
If not talked about and left in your head, he will take until you have nothing left.
Before it’s too late go look in the mirror, repeat in the mirror,
I’m not the enemy he’s called PTSD.”
I thank Brian Jackson, the poet, for that moving reflection on post-traumatic stress disorder.
In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary made an important point that I will reiterate. Veterans and their families often face unique challenges in their mental health, but that does not mean that we should not think in terms of prevention and early intervention.
Recovery is possible, but achieving our aspirations will need a cross-policy approach, with a real and sustained focus on the stigma that veterans often experience. In Scotland, we have done a great deal to tackle stigma through the Scottish Government-backed See Me campaign. We know that veterans face particular stigma. I want to make sure that we understand the impact that that has on veterans and work to change the attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate it. Many members, including Mr Sweeney, mentioned stigma. I am pleased to announce that we will resource and work with See Me on a veterans campaign to better understand the issues. We will listen to veterans and we will address stigma together.
Mr Brown mentioned that housing and homelessness are an issue that is close to my heart, which is the case. I could sometimes be doing without the previous veterans minister, Mr Dey, who is—rightly—vociferous on veterans’ housing. We are taking forward crucial work in that area, together with work on employability and better data—many members mentioned that—and on the right pathways to help and support and many more issues
One area of work is meeting the needs of veterans in community-based approaches.
Further to the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks, Mr Findlay confirmed that we could not amend the Government’s motion in more than one place. Our amendment is based largely on the motion but includes the requirement for an assessment and action within two years. Will the minister agree to that and support our amendment?
We will not support the amendment. I get that there is always a difficulty in writing amendments, but we can all do it. We can co-operate and talk to one another about how we can amend things to get what we want. That did not happen in this case, and we cannot accept the amendment. That is a great pity because, as Mr Brown pointed out, we have previously had consensus in the Parliament—particularly when Mr Corry was in the lead—to get things right for our veterans. I am sorry that we cannot accept the amendment but, if the Conservatives come and talk to us in the future, we can see what we can do.
I was talking about the needs of veterans in community-based approaches, including suicide prevention work. I will add to the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks by touching on that and on the Labour amendment. As we develop our new suicide prevention strategy, we will engage with organisations that represent veterans’ interests. Through our work to deliver on our suicide prevention action plan, NHS Education for Scotland and Public Health Scotland have produced a range of learning resources on suicide prevention. We will work with veterans organisations to tailor those resources to meet veterans’ specific needs, to raise awareness of the resources and to encourage their uptake.
We need to do better at understanding and addressing issues that are faced by groups who are at heightened risk of suicide, including veterans. We must listen more to the voices of lived experience. Together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we are developing a new long-term suicide prevention strategy for Scotland, which will be published in September this year. In developing that new strategy, we will ensure that veterans are at its heart. We also need to work with veterans organisations on developing our new self-harm strategy, on which Mr Hoy, Ms Mackay, Ms Baillie and Mr Cole-Hamilton have engaged with us.
The range of work that has been mentioned illustrates how important it is for us to continue to work collaboratively on the issues. There have been some outstanding examples of that, even during the challenges of the pandemic. Many members mentioned things that have gone on in their constituencies and regions, which are immense. Mr Carson mentioned Archie Dryburgh, as did Carol Mochan. I have met Archie on a number of occasions. He is a powerful force, which is a good thing.
Audrey Nicoll mentioned the Gordon Highlanders museum and the veteran volunteers who carry out work there. They are immense. I believe that Jackie Dunbar is still a member of the board of that museum and, at this point, she would probably want me to say “bydand”, so I do so to keep her sweet as we move forward.
There are also issues that, sadly, we have not really talked about in the depth that we should have done before. LGBTQ+ veterans have faced some real trauma, not only because of their service on the front line but because of being thrown out of the armed forces. Mr O’Kane talked about the misunderstanding of their challenges. He was being very diplomatic about that.
Christine Grahame never minces her words. She asked how we are going to do everything that is proposed and ensure that it reaches everybody nationwide. Graeme Dey also said that there should be no postcode lotteries.
I will, Presiding Officer.
The Scottish structure that will emerge from the action plan will create a Scotland-wide, one-door approach to everything to ensure that we get it right for everyone. The Scottish Government values and appreciates the people who have served their country and recognises the myriad sacrifices made by many to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today. Some of the work that I have outlined today will play a key role in ensuring that the right mental health support is available across multiple levels of need and in recognising the unique circumstances that veterans and their families face.