I start by declaring my interest as a veteran and an active reservist. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Esther McVey on securing the debate and the way in which she has presented it. I know she has a deep interest in veterans’ affairs, which shines through, and she has been a passionate advocate for her Handforth constituents and veterans in general. Her aim is to make life better for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way in the service of our country, and I certainly share that goal.
My right hon. Friend reflected thoughtfully on the question of what we might call signposting. At the time of my first stint as a Defence Minister a decade ago, there was an impenetrable maze of veteran provisions without any realistic road map for navigating it. It was bitty—I think that was the term that my right hon. Friend used. In the meantime, there have been significant improvements, although I am the first to admit that we are not there yet. The MOD actively supports vulnerable service leavers to make the most successful transition possible to civilian life, building on the substantial skills and experience they have accrued in the armed forces.
I am bound to represent to my right hon. Friend the Veterans’ Gateway, which offers a pretty good first point of contact for all former personnel and their families who need access to both the state and charitable sectors. It offers help with pretty much everything, from finances to families, housing to health and independent living to mental wellbeing, and I really commend it. We should all be concerned about delays in getting assistance to veterans, which my right hon. Friend touched on. Ideally, there should be no gap between the request for and the provision of help. Realistically, the system caters for approximately 1.85 million veterans, each with individual issues that may or may not be related to service and requiring different contact with myriad organisations, from Government and local authorities to the charitable sector. To give an idea of the scale of the work, some 450,000 veterans receive an armed forces pension—happily, me included—and last year the veterans’ welfare service handled calls from almost 40,000 people.
Unfortunately, even with the best efforts of the dedicated staff who fill out the forms and operate the phone lines, people can slip through the net; usually we hear from them, not from those who are satisfied with the service they receive. I have visited Norcross near Blackpool to talk to those whose job it is to manage those sometimes quite difficult calls, and I have been impressed by a couple of things: first by their longevity in the job, and secondly by the sense of dedication they have to servicing the needs of their clients’ community. Claims for compensation, for example, have long been hampered by a reliance on paper records—a theme that I have talked about before. The staff at Norcross operate in, frankly, an outdated environment that does not match their commitment and expertise. We need to do away with all those paper records. While it may sound boring, I am convinced that those paper records are at the heart of some of the delays we have seen. They are not the only reason, and I am more than happy to describe at greater length the cause of those delays, but we must drag the systems at Norcross kicking and screaming into the 21st century.