Scottish Grand Committee
Wednesday 28 November 2001
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
The Chairman: The first item of business this morning is a statement on the veterans initiative. There is no time limit on the statement and the subsequent questions, but I will have regard to the main item of business, which must end at 1 o'clock, when I decide whether to call hon. Members to put further questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Thank you, Mrs. Adams. Your statement that there is no time limit on questions—or on the length or breadth of them, no doubt—is most daunting.
It is a pleasure to have the chance to make a statement on veterans' responsibilities. We do not get many opportunities to speak on the subject. I thought that it would be useful to let colleagues know what we have been up to in the past six months, and what we propose to do in future. Although the Ministry of Defence is heavily involved in overseas operations, the Committee will hear a briefing on health, social and education issues, rather than one on asymmetrical warfare.
The veterans initiative arose from one of the wider themes of Parliament—public sector reform aimed at achieving a joined-up approach and an integrated policy across Government. Until now, the concerns of veterans have been dealt with on a single-issue basis by the Department responsible, or by local government. That trend was exacerbated by recent constitutional changes, which have increased the diversity of devolved Governments and local government. That diversity has increased the risk of variable delivery of public service benefits to veterans.
The Prime Minister appointed me as the Minister responsible for veterans' affairs to ensure a more integrated approach to veterans' issues, and to ensure that those issues are properly understood, appropriately prioritised and effectively addressed across Government. The veterans initiative will not encroach on the responsibilities of the devolved Administrations, but my remit covers veterans from all four nations. The veterans' community has made it clear that they expect an even-handed and consistent approach throughout the United Kingdom from Government, local government and the devolved Administrations.
The Prime Minister's appointment of a veterans' champion in Government demonstrates that we recognise the special status of the ex-service community, and the unique contribution that it has made to the defence of the United Kingdom. To continue that work effectively, I need to plan a strategy with my ministerial colleagues on the veterans' taskforce that I set up.
The taskforce is supported by a veterans' forum, which works with representatives from veterans' organisations throughout the country, in particular, the executive committee of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations. It is also supported by officials from Government Departments that have an interest in veterans' affairs, such as the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
On the official side, Scotland's interests are covered by Eric Miller from the Scotland Office, and Linda Rosborough from the Scottish Executive. The representative from the voluntary sector is Major General John MacDonald, the General Secretary of the Scottish Ex-Service Charitable Organisations.
The taskforce is made up of interested Ministers from throughout Government and the devolved Administrations, including the Minister of State, Scotland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), and Margaret Curran, the Scottish Executive's Deputy Minister for Social Justice. Also on the taskforce are two senior members of the veterans' community, the chairmen of COBSEO and the general secretary of the Royal British Legion.
The taskforce has agreed three main priorities for the initiative. First, it must pull together the Government's response to issues that cut across Government Departments, such as the assistance that is provided to tackle homelessness or ill health. Secondly, it must ensure that lessons are learned and absorbed into the Ministry of Defence's planning. The MOD must ensure that it has the right preventive measures in place in order to minimise later problems, such as service lost through injury and illness, and to respond adequately to the challenges of operational stress and resettlement.
The third priority is to co-ordinate communication by publicising and demonstrating the full range of help offered to veterans by central and local government. Veterans' organisations have the opportunity to represent their collective and individual anxieties to the Government at ministerial level.
An Adjournment debate on veterans' affairs that was held on 8 May and initiated by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), now Economic Secretary to the Treasury, provided us with a reminder of the wide range of problems that need to be tackled. The issues raised provided the taskforce with a remit for the veterans initiative to cover pensions, homelessness, post-traumatic stress, access to health care, family breakdown, poor employment skills, criminal behaviour, substance abuse, war graves and the widespread anxiety that the sacrifices made by veterans and their dependants has been forgotten. It is amazing how much one can get through in an Adjournment debate. The debate convinced me of the need to make help for the most vulnerable veterans a priority, and showed how important it was to win the commitment of ministerial and parliamentary colleagues in achieving that.
The agenda for the veterans initiative has been developed by a strategic action group, largely within the Ministry of Defence, set up by the deputy Chief of Defence Staff with responsibility for personnel, Air Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger. Its goal was to develop a cross-Government action plan that would raise the profile of veterans' issues in Government and improve the delivery of benefits to veterans.
Much of what I am discussing must seem very bureaucratic and organisation-based. In fact, it shows that we had no proper structure for dealing with such issues, and highlights the complexity of trying to set up the initiative. The initiative, which is being repeated in many other Departments, shows how difficult and complex it is to get everyone together to begin discussing and dealing with a subject. Although my comments make it seem like a very bureaucratic system, I assure hon. Members that it is not. There is no other way to put in place the infrastructure to produce the improvement in services that we hope to achieve through the initiative.
Helping vulnerable people has been one of the Government's key priorities since the 1997 election, as the creation of the Cabinet Office's social exclusion unit shows. The strategic planning group referred to the special report produced by the better regulation taskforce in September 2000, which was entitled ``Protecting Vulnerable People''. A key concern was to identify any circumstances relating to service life that were driving the problems of ex-service personnel, and to deal with them. The job of the taskforce is to focus on the need for regulation or support that would remove or mitigate the root cause of the vulnerability—for example, providing access to expert mental health care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or preventing veterans from falling into social exclusion as they make the step back into civilian life.
Another priority is to protect from harm vulnerable veterans such as those who are about to be released following a prison term. Departments should work much more closely with veterans charities on that. We must also examine how vulnerable veterans can be provided with support when full independence cannot be achieved. Much is already in place through the work of the Ministry of Defence's War Pensions Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. However, particular issues should be dealt with, such as the impact of recent changes in regulation on the economics of long-term residential care. Benefit providers such as the Department for Work and Pensions need to examine aspects such as access to information, advice and guidance, access to complaints procedures, and redress.
My taskforce colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), put the aim of the veterans initiative in a nutshell, when she said that
``the lead Department should focus on understanding the factors driving the client group's vulnerability and identifying ways of mitigating the vulnerability. It will be the MoD's responsibility to provide prevention measures.''
That partnership approach is best exemplified by the recent achievements of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and its rough sleepers unit, the voluntary sector and the MOD, which have been working together to meet the target of reducing the number of rough sleepers by two thirds by April 2002. Meeting that public services agreement target has involved DTLR-sponsored legislation, the development of new definitions of vulnerability by the Cabinet Office, joint investment in new sheltered housing accommodation by the Government and veterans' benevolent funds, and the MOD improving our resettlement procedures. Similar partnerships must be considered to reduce veterans' vulnerability in matters such as mental health, other types of social exclusion, and long-term care.
The strategic action plan that has been developed to take that work forward was endorsed by the 156 delegates who attended the first meeting of the veterans' forum, in its plenary session, on 16 October. That group of delegates represented a broad cross-section of the veterans' community.
Small output-focused working groups are being established to take the action plan forward. They have clearly defined terms of reference, and they are focused on the key deliverables. They will be chaired by an expert from the Government Department with the lead responsibility for policy, or by the most appropriate representative from the voluntary sector. This is not merely an intra-Government initiative; wherever possible, we are involving people from outside.
There are nine working groups. The people who are chairing them have been asked to produce progress reports and presentations in time for the next major meetings—of the forum in April 2002, and of the taskforce in May.
With regard to driving our agenda forward, I wish briefly to describe what we want the committees to do. We are seeking to set the scene for a broad and effective long-term agenda. Our aims cannot be achieved by implementing a series of one-off measures within a six-month agenda. The key issues are too complex to be adequately addressed in that way. They can be dealt with only if they become an integral part of day-to-day policy development and service delivery. Success will be achieved only if the requirement to be responsive to veterans' needs and concerns is embedded in Government thinking at a strategic level.
One of the best ways of achieving that aim is to focus on the public service agreement targets. I assure hon. Members that, at this stage, the objective is not to obtain agreement on specific measures to assist veterans, or to single veterans out for special treatment. Their problems, and the causes of those problems, are the same as those of the rest of the population. We want Departments to review their public service agreements to identify areas where they suspect that there might be a significant and discrete veterans' element. Where such a problem is identified—as, for example, among rough sleepers—officials should work together to develop solutions.
The aim of the first working group will be to lead a strategic cross-Government review to identify areas where the successful delivery of public service agreement targets is dependant upon addressing a significant and discrete veterans' issue. Where such an issue is identified, the next step will be to establish specific initiatives to address those veterans' needs. That work will be undertaken in partnership with interested parties, both within Government and outside, and the solutions should address both immediate mitigation of the problem, and the root causes in service life.
A good partnership cannot be built without good communication. The second working group will carry out a study that aims to improve communication with the 13 million members of the veterans' community. The study will build on the initiative of the Department for Work and Pensions to clarify and maintain the Government's communication with older people, and on the work of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to examine ways of maintaining contact and communication with hard-to-reach groups.
The third working group has been asked to produce recommendations on ways to do more to increase recognition of the special status of veterans, as a group to whom society owes a debt. The feasibility of introducing a veterans' identity card is one of the options that will be explored; we hope that that might promote an esprit de corps among veterans, and improve their access to better financial deals and other benefits that such cards offer—as has been shown by the experience in other countries.
The fourth group has been asked to find ways of increasing recognition of the contribution and achievements of veterans through education. That objective is particularly relevant with regard to young people; it is important to try to show them the part that veterans have played in maintaining national and international security. Such education would provide an opportunity to highlight the many achievements of our armed forces in recent times. In practical terms, we are trying to co-ordinate the development of work material for the new key stage 3 scheme for citizenship that will be part of the national curriculum from September 2002.
The guidance produced by the Department for Education and Skills encourages schools to use history to develop pupils' ideas of citizenship, including their understanding of the institutions that support democracy. That presents an excellent opportunity for the veterans' organisations to provide an example of citizenship in action, both in written material and, perhaps, through providing volunteers to act as classroom helpers at junior and secondary level. The objective is to ensure that new generations have a proper understanding of what the armed forces have contributed to our society's well-being. It should cover the contribution of Commonwealth forces, which is often forgotten, and should help to improve the identification of ethnic minorities with the work of the armed forces.
The fifth working group covers similar ground. It will produce recommendations on how to give greater recognition to some of the more recent achievements of the armed forces with which members of the younger generation can more readily identify, given that they have little direct experience within their families of service in the armed forces. That will help to redress the widespread impression that veterans and what we celebrate as our military history are overwhelmingly about the first and second world wars. To ensure that the initiative continues to focus on the key concerns of veterans, we have applied to the Treasury for support from the evidence-based policy fund.
The aim of the sixth working group is to commission and oversee research that will provide data on the key areas of unresolved vulnerability and the factors that determine it. It should also provide evidence to support decisions about where effort and investment could be more productively targeted. One of the most productive areas for preventive measures is at the point when service personnel make the transition back into civilian life. The present resettlement arrangements are good at helping those who have had a successful military career, but perhaps not nearly so good for those who have failed.
The aim of the seventh working group is to consider ways in which to provide those more vulnerable to social exclusion, such as people who are compulsorily discharged, with improved resettlement advice to reduce the risk that they compound their failure by failing to make a successful transition to civilian life. That advice will include individual advice to improve the likelihood of such individuals' finding and holding down a job, finding and sustaining a home and finding further help should the initial assistance not be sufficient. The intention is to provide specifically trained dedicated consultants who would operate from the 10 regional resettlement centres and provide advice and signposting to improve the likelihood of a successful transition. That will be linked to the special mentoring service that will be provided by the Department for Work and Pensions under the new jobcentre plus arrangements and to the existing services provided by the ex-service charities. I have asked that the scheme be made sufficiently flexible to enable deferred or perhaps repeat access by veterans returning from a period of social exclusion.
The eighth working group will provide the key veterans' organisations with the opportunity of further consultation on the outcome of compensation and pension reviews before any final decisions are taken on the way ahead. The ninth working group will provide advice and guidance on improving the long-term care that is provided to veterans. One of the most pressing problems for the ex-service community is the increasing demand for places in long-term residential care homes for elderly and disabled veterans at a time when capacity is falling due to increasing costs.
The position seems to have been exacerbated by the introduction of higher standards under the Care Standards Act 2000. I have asked colleagues at the Department of Health to provide a chair for a working group to look into the matter and provide advice and guidance on what action might be taken by the veterans' organisations that provide residential care, to enable them to meet the challenge presented by the Act and to help them to respond to a growing population of elderly people.
The veterans' community has made it clear that it is expecting an even-handed and consistent approach throughout the United Kingdom. I am pleased to tell the Committee that, at the taskforce meeting, Margaret Curran said that the Scottish Executive would, in turn, convene a special meeting with Scottish veterans' organisations and local authorities to agree how to take the initiative forward in Scotland. She also made the point that, although the Scottish curriculum was structured differently, teachers' learning packs could be used by Scottish schools at the appropriate time to deliver the same objective. Margaret Curran offered to conduct a trawl to identify the particular health issues that are considered significant by Scottish veterans.
The Committee may not be surprised that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence and I frequently meet representatives of those who are currently serving as well as representatives of veterans in Scotland, so there is no shortage of opportunities for them to convey their views to us. I must say that they take advantage of those opportunities whenever possible.
I have, perhaps, said enough, although I could cover other matters such as war graves, especially at sea—the Committee will know that we are dealing with that from press reports—Gulf veterans' illnesses and medals. Hon. Members receive regular correspondence about those issues. I will be pleased to answer questions on such matters, but I thought that I would provide a simple framework. We are doing as much as possible for this valued group in society.