See below Gordon's Report Back from last year's Armed Forces Rountable on "The challenges facing Veterans’ Charities and the Armed Forces Covenant".
Thank you once again to everyone who took the time to attend my second ever Armed Forces Round Table event. For those of you who were not able to make it, I hope this report back provides a useful insight into what was a very informative discussion with some practical ideas for moving forward.
I was pleased to see so many people from the local Armed Forces community and I felt the discussion we had around challenges and changing nature of veterans’ charities were very relevant ones, both in the context of recent decisions made by nationally Combat Stress and locally by BLESMA. I will be writing to the Prime Minister Theresa May on three specific issues:
The funding crisis beginning to hit military charities.
The Government’s Veterans Minister being given too many other roles.
Ways of implementing the military covenant so it works better for ex-service personnel.
I want to thank both Sergeant Rick Clement and Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Lighten MBE from the Duke of Lancaster Regiment, who both helped to lead some of this important discussion. Rick spoke about his experiences of the support and help he was given after being seriously injured in Afghanistan and how this informed him when setting up his own charity. Johnny talked about the roles of both central and local Government and how they through the Military Covenant and working alongside different charities could better support the needs of veterans.
Following his injuries and the help he then received from charities like the Royal British Legion and Blesma, Rick spoke about how it made him want to give something back to the forces and veterans’ community. In his opinion he said there were three different types of veterans’ charities - those who helped with physical injuries, the charities that helped with mental health related illnesses and organisations that supported older veterans.
A few points came from this with some comments around the charity “Help for Heroes”, which of all the veterans charities in the country, is arguably the most well-known. With recent conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, much of the support has been focused on that of younger veterans and their needs. There was a concern felt and one that I share about older veterans and the fact they were being sometimes overlooked. We must not forget those who served in the Second World War to veterans from Korea, the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s and coming through to Northern Ireland and the Falklands in the 70s and 80s. Like Rick commented, there needs to be a network around our older veterans so they have the best possible support in their later years, when they can sometimes suffer from isolation and loneliness if they don’t have family members close by.
As mentioned the conflicts of recent years have meant veterans’ charities have taken on a much higher profile with a lot of new ones emerging. Often these are bona fide but some have not been with a small number being set up with dishonest intentions. As Alison (Bunn) from the Royal British Legion explained, there are often well meaning people setting up these charities, but who were not always aware of the services that are already out there or had the relevant experience to support veterans. That’s why I agree that there needs to be quality assurance measures in place with more scrutiny on the sector so we avoid duplication and ensure there are quality services available for both serving and ex-service personnel. This is something the Government and in particular the Government’s Veterans’ Minister needs to take a lead on.
THE ARMED FORCES COVENANT
In my question at Prime Ministers’ Questions I made reference to the study done by the charity SSAFA which found only 16% of working-age veterans thought the Armed Forces Covenant was being implemented properly – “the nation’s promise ensuring that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly”.
In his comments Johnny (Lighten) told us of a recent visit to his doctor but despite commenting that he had come from the Barracks in Fulwood, still the GP didn’t make the military connection. This underlines a bigger problem. Yes there are some health professionals who are aware of the Covenant, as well as the broader issues veterans may face, but there were many who don’t.
Right across the health service and other public sector organisations, including local councils such as Blackpool, staff need be aware of the Covenant and what it stands for - we need to be looking at making mandatory training available to everyone who may have to work with ex-service personnel in their line of work.
Steve (Greenwood), Chair of the Blackpool Submariners, also made an important point that local GPs should especially be trained up as a first point of contact for veterans so they then had the knowledge to signpost them in the direction of other areas of support – whether that be an issue around mental health, housing, welfare etc.
The problem is the level and quality of support for veterans differs right across the country and Johnny is right that the Government needs a strategy that is top-down in its approach. Localism when it comes to veterans care will not work and we cannot find ourselves in a position where support for veterans effectively becomes a postcode lottery, where some areas of the country prioritise it higher than others.
VETERANS AND THE RETURN TO CIVILIAN LIFE
With personnel leaving the Armed Forces at a younger age, finding other employment and making the smooth transition into civilian life is crucial. As both Shadow Minister for Skills and as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Veterans, it is a priority of mine and something I look to take forward this year.
Transferring skills from the military to civilian life are not always straightforward. Lesley-Jane (Holt) from LifeWorks RBLI spoke about how a lot of employers were now using automated software to scan through CVs but pointed out this wasn’t always picking up or recognising skills relating to the Forces. Working with organisations such as Lifeworks, who offer a series of courses designed to build on existing skills for employment beyond the Forces, we need to look at how we better help veterans so they are able to make a smooth transition into other walks of life.
FRIENDS OF FYLDE MEMORIAL ARBORETUM AND COMMUNITY WOODLAND
Finally we heard from Councillor Chris Ryan, Blackpool Council’s excellent Armed Forces Champion, who is responsible for putting together and delivering an action plan, developed with interested groups to address some of the barriers and issues facing the forces community.
As well as this Chris is working hard to set up a “Friends” Group for the Fylde Memorial Arboretum and Community Woodland at Bispham. With the support of Blackpool Council, he is actively looking for people to join the group, who can help with the upkeep and maintenance of this important site. For more information about the project, you can contact Chris by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I am committed to putting the support of veterans and the wider Armed Forces community both nationally and locally at the centre of my campaigning. As I mentioned at the start of this Report Back, I will be writing to the Prime Minister on three specific issues - the funding crisis of military charities, the role of the Veterans and finally, ways in which the military covenant can better work for ex-service personnel.
I want to thank you once again for taking the time to attend and participate in this very important discussion. If you would like to meet on a one on one basis to discuss specific points further, please contact my Communications Assistant Andrew Bettridge on either 01253 344143 or e-mail bettridgeA@parliament.uk to arrange a date and time.
Gordon Marsden – Member of Parliament for Blackpool South