Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con)
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting me this debate.
I know that this is a persistent cause of mine, and sometimes I feel that I should apologise to the Minister for bringing him to the House to discuss his portfolio. I want to say from the outset how impressed I and many others in this sector are by his personal commitment to this agenda, and my comments are in no way directed at him or any of his staff who work hard to try and tackle the challenge of veterans care within the envelope that he has been given by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister.
It is not easy. The political world is chaotic at present and priorities are hard to define, but the truth is that in this sector the challenge of closing the gap between what we say so promisingly at the Dispatch Box and how it feels to the men and women who serve increases in severity the longer we leave it. The landscape is clear, with ever increasing demand—an ongoing cost, as it were—resulting from the recent campaigns that this country has undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, set against a declining interest in this agenda, both from the wonderful people of this country who have carried the torch valiantly in recent years, but who are experiencing battle fatigue now that operations have faded from view and, I regret to say, from Government too.
Let me expand my argument. In January last year, I met the previous Prime Minister and presented a report that for the first time had almost universal support across the veterans care sector. It examined a sustainable veterans care model so that the United Kingdom could do its duty by those who serve. I also presented the report to the Secretary of State for Defence and others.
The paper was not my solution but that of many people involved in the arena: serving, retired, and third sector. It was our voice, and I was proud of it. It was greeted with warm words and encouraging lines about duty and responsibility, with a promise of a response, but regrettably, after a while, nothing materialised at all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and on all he does in this field. Having looked at the paper, I recommend its proposal on having a single point of contact. May I invite him to read another paper on the armed forces community health and wellbeing team for Dorset by Andy Gritt, and see how it fits with his model?
Absolutely; I should be delighted to have a look at that.
In the current political landscape, I fear that the can of veterans care has received another good punt down the road in the wake of Brexit. I strongly welcome and support the new Prime Minster, who is supremely equipped to tackle a job which, from my position, looks almost impossible—that of managing my party and granulating the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. I could not wish her more strength to her arm in these challenges, and I will support her to a fault, as she well knows. I believe that we achieve nothing on our own in politics, and the strength to tackle the challenges ahead is in the team on the Conservative Benches.
However, I must confess myself to be disappointed at first sight on this single issue. In July I challenged the Prime Minister in the leadership campaign, in front of my entire party, about her commitment to this agenda and her willingness to look at a new Government Department—or something similar—to finally match our words with our deeds when it comes to the 2.6 million veterans in this country. Her response was that she was not keen to restructure Government and create any new Departments beyond a Department for Exiting the European Union, which I entirely understood. The House can imagine my concerns over the summer about where veterans care ranked on her agenda, as she subsequently re-ordered Government to face the challenges ahead which, as I mention frequently, I entirely support, but she chose not to include this cause too.
I was further concerned that the veterans care agenda was being diluted when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), had his veterans care duties spread even more thinly with the addition of the reserves brief to his work—an increasingly enormous challenge as the military reconfigures its relationship with the reserves heading into 2020. For me this was a clear movement in the opposite direction to that which we were pursuing, which did not go unnoticed by those who strive to deliver this country’s duty to those who serve.
That is the current position—ever-increasing demand, a general and understandable decline in interest in this agenda now that the wounds of war are not visible on those flying back from Iraq or Afghanistan every week, and a Government challenged by unprecedented political demands.
I note what my hon. Friend says about the fading of memory, but when my constituent Robert de Ferry Foster came to see me at an advice surgery the other week, it was clear that the legacy of the injuries he sustained in Iraq are with him every day. He talked about sustainability, which my hon. Friend has spoken about as well, but he also spoke about the need for simplicity—a simple, transparent system for those who have served and sustained potentially life-threatening and very life-impacting injuries. They need a far simpler way of gathering the support and help to which they are legitimately entitled.
I entirely agree, and I will come to the four principles, of which that is one, that should underlie veterans care. It is not a case of veterans being entitled to that care; we owe it to them and we must deliver it.
That is why I seek leave again to challenge the Minister on the Floor of the House and to challenge this Government to fulfil their duty to those who do our bidding from this House. I know that it can be a little tedious watching or listening to me keeping on about this agenda. I am not naive about that, but I cannot stop. I do not do it because I have nothing else to do. I do not do it because there are particularly good career prospects in this line of work, or because there is some sort of intangible crowd that I am playing to out there. I do it for the one simple thing that drove so many of us in the past decade and a half to conduct unpopular wars on this nation’s behalf, miles from home and often from the public eye.
I refer to that one word which I remember compelling the marine at the front of my patrol to do his duty, refusing any relief from those duties—in his case seeking out improvised explosive devices day after day for seven long months. I refer to that thing which makes a young officer calmly accept his fate with the words, “Lads, I’m going down,” rather than lose his composure in the heat of battle as he died in front of his men. I do not seek to lecture my esteemed colleagues in Government, but it is my duty to those men to keep up this fight, and the sacrifice I make in doing this is so entirely insignificant compared to theirs that I feel I must keep going until we match what we say as a Government from that Dispatch Box with what it feels like for our men and women who serve.
I applaud the Government’s efforts on this agenda, but they are not enough— nowhere near enough. I have no doubt that this Minster and his staff work night and day trying to deliver this agenda, but he can only work with the resource and priorities that he is given by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this incredibly important debate. I know that he shares my concerns about the mental health of veterans. Does he also share my specific concern about the availability of specialist mental health services for our veterans, which we know are particularly patchy in some parts of the country, exacerbating many of the challenges that we know our veterans face?
Absolutely—I completely agree. On mental health, we have moved so far away from getting involved, getting our hands dirty and sorting this out that we are now in danger of being in a place where the perception is that everybody who leaves the armed forces has some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that is wildly inaccurate. We need to provide these services for those who need them, professionalise the standard, and take far more of an interest than we have done.
Given his current operating envelope, the Minister has achieved some significant things. Let us take, for example, his work in the healthcare arena for service personnel and veterans with complex care needs. The scheme he announced in July, assuming that the pilot is successful, could fundamentally change the way in which care for our most seriously injured is commissioned, easing the pressure on local clinical commissioning groups and retaining the knowledge and expertise within Defence for those who have been injured. This is the future—a first step. I urge the Prime Minister to note the early successes of this scheme and look to roll it out nationwide.
I plead with the Minister and his Department not to take my observations personally. He conducts valuable work, but it is my job to speak truth to power from these Benches, and I would be failing in my job if I were not to do so. What is the truth? I think it is the evidence. The evidence on this is not the endless announcements about what we have put into the sector. These announcements are clearly to be welcomed, although I cannot help but feel that they play somewhat to a home crowd. The evidence is how what we do affects and matters to those whom we are trying to help. I have said for a long time that until we fundamentally change this conversation from talking about what we are endlessly pouring into this sector to how it actually feels to be a veteran in the United Kingdom in 2016, we will never truly understand the scale of the work to be done.
I would say to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Prime Minister that the evidence is there if we were only to look. For example, a study done by SSAFA just before the summer recess indicated that 85% of veterans feel that the UK Government do not support them well enough, while 84% believed that the much heralded armed forces covenant was not being implemented at all. Almost half the people in the armed forces surveyed in the study—the very people we are trying to help—had not even heard of the armed forces covenant. The gap between how we think this is being implemented as a policy and how it is really being implemented is so great that I hesitate to air it in public. It is a lottery of choice as to where local authorities or others choose to implement it, and that currently dictates whether the military covenant is a reality for our servicemen and women. It has become a catch-all phrase in this place and No. 10 that is becoming—I hesitate to say it— increasingly meaningless to the service community, and that will continue unless we stop this trend. I say this as someone who last week privately met the previous Prime Minster—a good man who genuinely “got” the military in this country—and could tell that he has genuine pride in his achievements with this policy. However, the gap between the top and the reality on the ground is vast.
I reference one study for evidence. In truth, there are many, for in this country we have been blessed for some time by a public and a third sector that has done wonders for our armed forces veterans over the years. Of the thousands who work in the sector—who do so for little reward but in the same vein as that duty of which I spoke earlier—I want to mention one couple who have left the sector in recent months, leaving their indelible mark, and the conversations around veterans care in the United Kingdom forever changed. Bryn Parry and his wife Emma set up Help for Heroes in 2007 as a result of the catastrophic consequences of a criminal dereliction of veterans care by the United Kingdom Government in the aftermath of the early days of Iraq and Afghanistan. The third sector presents its challenges as much as any other sector. It is a congested market, competing for the same funding, with people trying their best to do what they think is right for our armed forces veterans. We will hear good and bad of every organisation, but the truth is that Help for Heroes has completely and fundamentally changed the way in which veterans care happens in this country today.
Like any success story, Help for Heroes has its detractors, and I am not naive about this, but I will never countenance them, I am afraid. I am from that generation who had nowhere else to go in 2005 for veterans care. Help for Heroes grew faster than any similar organisation in history, but did the thing that so many, I regret to say, neglect—retained its focus on those whom this is all about: the guys and the girls. Bryn and Emma, you have now passed your torch to your successors, but your light will never go out. From a generation of soldiers who felt that no one really cared once the battle finished, I want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for everything you did. You committed your lives to this pursuit, delivered extraordinary change and services, and I shiver to think where we would be without you.
Yesterday, volunteers from Help a Squaddie Find a Home in Rugeley visited Parliament. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating them on their hard work, and does he agree that the responsibility to support veterans to integrate back into civilian life and to ensure that they do not find themselves homeless is critical?
I do, and I commend the work of some of the brilliant charities that we have in this country; as I have said, I shiver to think where we would be without them. I think that it is a fundamental duty of Government to ensure that that care is available. We have a duty to these people. I do not think that we should deliver it, but we need to ensure that they are looked after. What is happening is not good enough. The Americans realised that after Vietnam. We need to catch up with the programme and make sure that care is delivered.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. I am very proud to represent the garrison town of Colchester, and I know too well the fantastic charities that work in this sector. As we withdraw from theatres of operation, we will inevitably have a peace dividend. Does he agree that this is the time that we should invest money to support our veterans?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and absolutely support what he says. We are reaching a point where demand is going up and the mindset of war is declining, and the moneys are in decline as well. If we do not get this right now, it will be far too late to do so in 2020.
My hon. Friend is making a very passionate case, as always. Go Commando, a charity in Taunton Deane, does great work to support not only veterans, but their families, which is so important. Initiatives such as children’s centres, holiday vouchers, days out and the provision of emotional and practical help could be very good models for the Government to incorporate into all the things that my hon. Friend is suggesting.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. We are not asking for the moon on a stick; there are some brilliant practices out there—not only in this country, but internationally—that we could learn from quickly. The services are there, but the Government have a job to do to bring everything together.
The third sector remains deeply challenging, and that is the reason for this debate. There are almost 2,500 military charities and funds in the UK today. Okay, many are regimental or sub-unit funds that are not in day-to-day use, but that figure gives a picture of the chaos. I would not have called this debate if I thought that every single one of those charities was doing good. This is an awkward conversation, but if we did not have it we would be doing a disservice to those whom we are trying to help.
Some charities struggle with financial management; some are plainly criminal. Some practise evidence-based therapies or treatments; some are a vehicle to further their own unproven treatments, however well-meaning they may be. Some are run professionally, with complaints structures and staff management routines; others are a disaster.
We must now sort out that problem, for as time goes on the Iraq and Afghanistan generation of warriors will fade from memory. We will be on the same pages as the Falklands and the Gulf war, and in the same chapter as the Americans in Vietnam. Moreover, the public will stop giving, and understandably so. The income of some of our major charities is down by a third this financial year. No organisation can sustain that. The LIBOR funding that has sustained us for so long will eventually run out. Yet the duty to our veterans will only increase as the scars of our recent wars reveal themselves in communities up and down this land. Referrals to Combat Stress are up 71%.
Now is the time to have this fight—this dirty fight—of sorting out the third sector. I cannot help feeling that most of the sector would thank us for it. They loathe the criminal charities as much as I do, and they feel as sick as I do when, as they struggle like everyone else, unproven methods or groups attract Government funding. They curse the lack of a common needs assessment, which means that they have to start each case from scratch, causing more trauma to the individual using their services. If we do not have this fight—the Government are the only ones who can do it—it will look like we do not care and do not want to have this conversation because it is too difficult, too dirty, for us to get involved.
I am afraid that this comes back to what I discussed at the beginning, namely duty. This Government have a duty, not to always deliver, for the charities do that better than we ever could, but to ensure the provision of veterans care in this country. That includes ensuring that it is accessible to all, particularly our most vulnerable communities, perhaps through a single point of contact; too many have no idea how to access some of the brilliant services provided by our third sector. It also means ensuring that the care is of a standard and safety applicable to those who have served—and, indeed, to any other UK citizen—and that it is evidence based and correctly staffed by qualified personnel. We also need to ensure that cases are managed and individuals guided through the enormously complex treatment pathways, and that the great British public, who have carried this torch for so long, do not get ripped off by individuals raising money for a cause to which they will never stop giving.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that it is vital that services are set up before veterans leave the forces? In particular, it is not good enough to have veterans scrambling for social housing in the days just after they have left the forces, as has happened in some of the cases I have come across.
I agree. Some sort of education before people leave would be helpful, and I understand that some work has been done. I agree that any sort of direction through this pathway is strongly to be welcomed.
Why do we have to do this? I ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to put yourself in the shoes of the average user—a corporal who is two or three years out. He gave the best years of his life to the service of this country, willingly. Now, in a civilian job, he starts to find his past a challenge to deal with. We have all seen someone like him in our constituencies, up and down this land. He does not want sympathy; when the bell came, he was proud to serve this nation of ours. He just wants to know where to go. He does not want to have to re-tell his story all the time. His wife wants to know that the course he is doing is safe, that he will be looked after and that his treatment has a fair chance of working. She wants to know that someone will be managing his case, taking an interest and encouraging him through the process. Crucially, she wants to know that he will get that help in a timely manner before his condition deteriorates and becomes so much harder and so much more costly to treat.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. Does he agree that we should use the armed forces covenant as an opportunity, and that it should be more than just talk? In places such as Staffordshire, with the relocation of regiments from Germany to Stafford, that would allow us to think about how we can help veterans over the next 10, 20 or 30 years—both now and when they retire—so that they can build families and homes without having to worry about some of the issues that he is raising.
My view on the armed forces covenant is that it is a great policy and, if implemented, it could work. The trouble is that, as I alluded to earlier, it is a complete lottery. I have seen it done well and I have seen it done appallingly, and there is no accountability at all. I hate to talk about it becoming meaningless but, ultimately, unless it means something, it is just another phrase. It can be a bit of a “get out of jail free” card for those who talk about the matter from the Dispatch Box, and that is what I want to change.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the veterans sector and for making a brilliant speech. Does he accept that the military covenant has made a huge difference to veterans’ lives since its inception and since it was enshrined in law? I agree that there has to be a better way of co-ordinating charities, and perhaps a centralised access point and standards across the board, but I would not dismiss what the military covenant has achieved thus far, even though there is always work to do.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but I refer him to the evidence that I presented earlier: 85%—quite a significant proportion—of veterans do not believe that that is the case at the moment.
In looking at all this, I really struggle to put my finger on why any of it is so desperately hard for the Government to achieve. Nobody else is going to do it. The third sector cannot compel faux charities to cease. It cannot compel others to agree to a single point of contact or a common needs assessment. The issue needs leadership. It needs a small but strong Department with a Cabinet Minister whose single duty and career stands and falls on veterans care. It needs the Government to make the shift from talking a very good game on this agenda to actually delivering it. It needs a game-changing event such as Help for Heroes provided in 2007. It is in the Prime Minister’s gift to do this, and I again plead with her to listen this evening. There are always reasons not to do this, and I have heard them all, but they do not wash. Every other ally we fight alongside has tried different ways but has settled on creating a Department for veterans affairs, and we should do the same.
I rise simply to say that we must not give the impression that Help for Heroes suddenly burst on to the scene and that no one else has helped veterans. The Soldiers Charity, the Army Benevolent Fund, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund—all those charities have helped for a very long time, and they will continue to support our soldiers. We must not give such an impression about the people who have helped my soldiers from 35 years ago—they are still suffering—unlike Help for Heroes, which at least to start with did nothing for my men. I just want to ask hon. Members not to say that Help for Heroes was suddenly wonderful and that everyone else had not really got on with the job. They did: they cared, and they looked after our men and women for a very long time before 2007.
I have persistently said that in the House. I use the Help for Heroes example because I want to pay tribute to Bryn and Emma, who have recently left it, as I believe that they changed the market when it comes to veterans care. Of course those in the charity sector have carried this burden for years and years, and people such as I and my hon. Friend will be enormously grateful to them for years to come.
In closing—I will close now, because I want to give the Minister more than the four minutes I left him to respond last time—this duty is not going to go away. I am afraid my voice will not grow weaker on this matter. I apologise to my many right hon. and hon. colleagues in this place for my persistence, which must appear tedious at times, but I ask them to bear with me, for they could not have had the experiences I have had—having seen and felt the sacrifice of our armed forces day after day, far from the public gaze—and give up this torch now.
I am privileged beyond anything I could have envisaged in those days when I fought alongside members of our armed forces, and I will use and abuse that privilege until the situation changes because they deserve it. Some lost everything as the Helmand sky faded from view and their name was added to the wall at the National Memorial Arboretum. Some lost body parts they would never recover. Too many lost their minds in a process that is ongoing today. They deserve a country and a Government that care. In a world that I sometimes find so incredibly selfish and cruel, they sacrificed themselves for the greater cause in the furtherance of this great nation of ours. I have not mentioned their families: the mother who wakes without her son, and the wife who wakes without her husband. I said this on my first day in the Chamber, and it will forever remain true:
“Theirs is the greatest sacrifice on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom”.—[Official Report, 1 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 375.]
We must never tire in our duty to them.
Thank you for allowing this debate tonight, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope I will not have to repeat the exercise too many more times.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) on securing this debate. His sterling work and passion in ensuring that our veterans have the necessary support and welfare they deserve are highly commendable. As a veteran himself, he is well placed to speak in the House on their behalf. Since arriving in the Commons in 2015, he has made it his mission to campaign on this area. Although I cannot claim to be a veteran quite yet—I was described by a senior general at the Army Board last week as a “seasoned oak”, so clearly it cannot be long before I can—I do, through my rather more modest service, absolutely recognise the importance of this subject.
Equally, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern about my ever-expanding portfolio, to which the reserves have been added. As a Royal Engineer, I have now been a serving member of the Army Reserve for some 28 years. I confess that I used to say that I looked far too young to have been one for so many years, but I fear that I nowadays do not look far too young. However, I do at least have some basic understanding of that brief, and I have not had to do too much background reading.
Comments have been made about the armed forces covenant—the recognition that the nation, as well as the Government, have a responsibility to ensure that our veterans suffer no disadvantage as a result of their service. There is an implication in those comments that the covenant has not been applied consistently across the United Kingdom. I have had such a concern for some time. That is why I commissioned the Forces in Mind Trust to do a review of the covenant across the United Kingdom earlier this year, and it has recently published a very extensive report that aims to share best practice.
I encourage colleagues in the House tonight to read that report and, crucially, pull out that best practice and encourage their own local authorities to follow it. There are some fantastic things happening across the UK. It will come as no surprise that the local authorities that seem to do things best are those with the greatest proportion of members of the armed forces. I take the opportunity of this debate to send the message: please spread that report far and wide, as it is the means by which we can begin to improve the level of understanding of the armed forces covenant.
The service charities have a crucial role to play. We have been supporting organisations such as Cobseo—the Confederation of Services Charities—which is an umbrella organisation for 250 charities, in its critical cluster work. I will talk about that in greater detail throughout the course of the debate.
My hon. Friend and I agree on many things, but I fear there is one on which we do not. I once again note his request for a separate Department for veterans. I can only repeat what I said in the debate in March this year, that on balance I do not believe that to be the best approach; if it meant I ended up in the Cabinet he might be able to persuade me to change my mind, but I fear it would not be me in the Cabinet. The needs of veterans straddle Whitehall boundaries and national borders because first and foremost our veterans are civilians. As I said previously, although we agree on the end, we do not necessarily agree on the means.
I fear a veterans Ministry would duplicate work that already exists through the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government and many organisations and Government agencies. I believe that the work of Defence Business Services Veterans UK provides a valuable service bringing together pensions, compensation and welfare support.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about whether a Department for veterans’ affairs would be better for veterans or in fact worse. Does he agree that should there be such a Department that would demotivate some of the very good civil servants in the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and elsewhere who are currently thoroughly committed to the issue of veterans, as if there were to be a separate Department for veterans they might well say, “That is nothing to do with me—give that to them”?
To a degree, this goes back to the principle of the armed forces covenant, which is really an agreement between the nation as a whole and our veterans. I would hate to think that we had moved to a position where we were in effect delegating this responsibility to a single Department and allowing others to feel that it somehow was not their responsibility to play a role in supporting our veterans.
The current system, whereby responsibility for veterans is cross-government, is positive. Yes, more should be done to ensure that all are playing their part, but on balance I agree with my hon. Friend that a dedicated veterans Department would be a retrograde step. We need not look too far, when looking at things across the Atlantic, to see some of the problems there. They are not simply financial; the very complex way in which care is given to veterans can be diluted. We also have the advantage of the national health service, which is a very comprehensive health service. That is a very good medium for supporting our veterans.
I am listening very carefully to the Minister. I also have great respect for the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). I ask this question. You are the veterans Minister—
Order. He is the veterans Minister.
Forgive me. I am getting carried away. My hon. Friend is the veterans Minister. As the veterans Minister, I take it that you actually have fingers in other Ministries, such as Health and Work and Pensions, and you make sure from your own efforts that veterans are well served, and you are the focus—
Order. He is.
Forgive me—the Minister is the focus. I am getting seriously carried away—it is the fault of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am certainly the only Minister with the word “veterans” in his title and I am certainly prepared to say that I take the lead on veterans matters. I would argue, however, that all Ministers in government should have our veterans on their mind and do what they can to support them. So, yes I am happy to take the lead, yes I am happy to have the title in my portfolio, and yes I am happy to try to ensure that all my ministerial colleagues also show the same interest. However, I would not want to be Minister with sole responsibility for veterans, for the reasons I gave when I answered my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray).
I recognise that the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to ensure that the transition from service to civilian life is as smooth as possible, allowing service personnel process to draw upon the vast array of transferable skills they have obtained in service, but I am not for one second saying that there is not more that could and should be done. I believe firmly that effective transition to civilian life is a major factor in ensuring effective care. I must emphasise that most service leavers transition well to civilian life through our robust and effective resettlement system known as the career transition partnership, which in 2014-15 helped 85% of service leavers to find sustainable employment within six months.
Despite that, I recognise that there is a small percentage of service leavers who do not make a smooth transition. These are the people we must work hard to identify and support. This is also why I am keen to include a question on veterans in the national census. That will help us to identify the veteran community. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View that I will continue to pursue this energetically with the Office for National Statistics and the chief statistician.
On that note, will the Minister ensure that his Cabinet Office colleagues are fully briefed? At the end of the day, the ONS will not make the final decision—the Cabinet Office will determine that. It would be a vital marker for the future.
We have a perfect example of why it is so important that the responsibility for veterans runs across the piece in government. As was so rightly pointed out, it is not in my power, as veterans Minister, to force the chief statistician to include this in his survey. If my hon. Friend is right, the Cabinet Office has the right to do that.
Transition is seen as a through-career management process. We are looking at different ways to ensure that from the point that people join the armed forces, they can see that they not only have the possibility of a fulfilling career but are aware that one day they will become a civilian and need to prepare for that. Career transition should start on day one of service and we must communicate this message on the very first day an individual joins. However, where there are veterans who have difficulties in transition, the Government, local authorities and the charitable sector must step in to ensure that they are afforded appropriate support. Alongside the Government, some 2,500 service charities also play a role. Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, of which many charities are a member, has also created various cluster groups to discuss important issues, such as mental health and housing, where they encourage collective working and provide a forum to raise issues and ideas to implement solutions.
To reiterate some of the points made during the debate in March on the role of charities in the veterans care sector, we value our partnership with the charitable and community sectors. They provide and address wider welfare requirements, particularly for the more vulnerable individuals in the armed forces community. Only last week at the MOD, I chaired the ministerial service charities partnership board, a meeting attended by relevant Government officials and Cobseo charities such as SSAFA, Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion. In recognition of some of the concerns my hon. Friend raises, I reset its role with a focus on co-operation and a strategic approach to discussions, where actions are taken on current and important issues arising in the veterans sector, with a view to ensuring that the MOD, charities and other Government Departments can be held to account. I believe that accountability is important. Frankly, as the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I walk a tightrope when it comes to dealing with charities. Ultimately, I have no power to direct a charity to do anything. Charities are not responsible to Government—they are responsible to their trustees—but I believe that the Government have a role in providing leadership to try to unite the various sectors in supporting veterans. This is a role that I try to fulfil.
On the point about Help for Heroes, it was a charity that started up in 2007. The armed forces had recently re-engaged in Afghanistan and stayed for a further seven years. The support, welfare and treatment initially provided by Help for Heroes bore fruit from the horrendous injuries that our brave service personnel suffered in that conflict. Throughout those seven years and beyond, along with improvements to equipment, we have made great strides in ensuring that the best medical support is available from the MOD, charities and the NHS. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to both Bryn and Emma Parry, whom I have got to know very well over the last couple of years, and thank them for all their service in leadership of this charity. I wish them well for the future.
I had a meeting with a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, which is why I could not attend this Adjournment debate any sooner.
In Northern Ireland, about 100 veterans have tried to commit suicide over the last year and a half, mainly those who served in Afghanistan. Those veterans are not with any charity or regimental association—they are under the radar. What can be done to reach those people that nobody knows about, but who have been affected very greatly by what they saw during their service in Afghanistan?
I intend to visit Northern Ireland shortly. For obvious reasons, I appreciate that there is a unique set of circumstances over there, and I am determined to do my bit to address them. Of course, communication is the key. I shall explain in a few moments how I believe we can help, but the key is making sure that support services are available and communicated. All too often, help is out there, but it is not clear how our veterans access it. I intend to say a few words about that if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
I informed the House earlier this year of a plan to improve the care received by the most seriously injured and highly dependent service personnel and veterans. Currently, this support is funded and delivered by a number of separate agencies, including the MOD, the NHS, local authorities and charitable organisations. As such, we have a pilot, which is ongoing, that sees care of this kind co-ordinated and delivered by a new integrated high-dependency care system—I think we need a better name. It produces a joined-up and improved system of care for the individual, reducing strain on local care commissioning groups. The early signs are that this is going well. I am happy, once it is established, to see how to extend it to a wider cohort of veterans.
On that very point, I invite the Minister to look at the Dorset model—I mentioned a few moments ago the work that Andy Gritt is doing in this area—to see whether it can feed into the model that the Minister has just mentioned.
I would be delighted to look at that model and see whether we can learn any lessons from it.
The aim is that this system will provide confidence for a small number of individuals and their families that their clinical, health and social support needs will continue to be met when they leave the armed forces and for the rest of their lives.
On the point about a single point of contact for veterans, I have good news for my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View. The armed forces covenant fund has £10 million each year to support the covenant by funding projects that address specific priorities, one of those being the creation of a veterans gateway. The aim of this initiative is to provide a single point of contact via a fully transactional website and one telephone number, together providing an information clearing house that takes into account the needs of all veterans, wherever they may be located. An announcement will be made very shortly on the preferred bidder for this contract, with this facility being launched during 2017. Further to that, there is the armed forces covenant website itself, which both serving and former serving personnel may access.
I am the first to recognise that the support of our veterans and the services that are provided for their welfare are not perfect. Nothing is, but I, like my hon. Friend, and indeed all hon. Members here tonight—it is a very good showing for an end-of-day Adjournment debate—am determined to do more. For example, the Department for Communities and Local Government is doing important work on supported housing, ensuring that local authorities have afforded priority where it is due. The DCLG has also introduced various measures to improve access to social housing for members of the service community, including veterans. That includes changing the law to ensure that local authorities always give seriously injured service personnel and veterans with urgent housing needs high priority in the provision of social housing. As for health, NHS England is introducing new initiatives in mental health services for veterans, the details of which contain expert input from MOD officials. Those are just a few examples of the collaborative work that we are undertaking throughout the Government.
May I make a plea on behalf of NHS workers? Veterans care is a very specialised area, and doctors, nurses and other staff need training and support if they are to care for veterans adequately. We have a great deal to learn from veterans. For example, the McIndoe Centre in East Grinstead was established because of the need to look after veterans who were returning from warfare, and that has benefited the country as a whole.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The issue of veterans healthcare is crucial, and I have been looking into the issue of veterans mental health care in particular. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has just entered the Chamber. His report “Fighting Fit” involved a great deal of work, and I am pleased to say that we have implemented nearly all his recommendations. Vital work is now being done to enable the medical records of service personnel to be transferred to the civilian national health service so that we can effectively track our veterans.
We must ensure, from the day people join the services until the day they leave, that they are ready for the transition to the civilian world, and collaboration and co-operation are key elements of that. We must continue to work with other Departments, with local authorities and with the charitable sector to build on what we have achieved thus far.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View for raising this important issue.
I sense that my hon. Friend is beginning to wind up his speech. Before he does so, let me thank him for his response, and also point out that it is imperative, as far as Conservative Members are concerned, that we do everything on the basis of the evidence that is presented to us. We can talk persistently about the fact that the armed forces covenant is working or about veterans care, but it is clear from the strength of the attendance in the Chamber this evening and from the stories that emerge each week that the current system is not working as well as it should.
I understand why my hon. Friend dismissed my proposal for a Department for Veterans Affairs, but such Departments work elsewhere. My proposal is not based on the United States model; it is completely different. I ask him not to close his mind to the concept, because I think that until we do something like that and fundamentally change the present position, we will not stop the haemorrhage of bad veterans care in this country.
Let me say two things to my hon. Friend. First, I do not think that it is just Conservatives who care passionately about this issue; I am confident that Members on both sides of the House care passionately about it, and I have been greatly encouraged by the positive co-operation and constructive support for progress that I have observed on the part of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. I hope that that continues, and I am sure that it will. Secondly, I do not have a closed mind about anything. I would like to think that during my tenure as veterans Minister to date—given that I have just praised Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, it may well come to an end quite shortly—I have demonstrably tried to take a fresh approach to a number of issues, including mesothelioma. I have looked at issues again, and I am currently looking at a couple of issues that are in my inbox.
I do not have a closed mind. All I am saying is that at the moment, on balance, I do not believe that my hon. Friend’s suggestion constitutes the right approach. We have heard this evening about how other areas of government can contribute effectively to the care of our veterans. I also feel—this point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—that we should not allow the other areas of government, and society, to feel that responsibility for our veterans has somehow been delegated to a small part of government. I believe—at the moment, on balance—that that would be a mistake.
Question put and agreed to.