Thursday, 13 November 2014

National Assembly debates veterans support

People who leave the armed forces after active service are sometimes at greater risk of
developing mental illnesses, falling foul of the criminal justice system and homelessness.
(Pic : UK Government)
On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated Welsh Government support for armed forces personnel, which coincided with Armistice Day.

Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), started by underlining the importance of 2014 due to the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He said it was also important to remember veterans of more recent conflicts : Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each local authority has signed a community covenant and has appointed a designated armed forces champion. In terms of what the Welsh Government are doing, Leighton said Veterans NHS Wales was the only national veterans' service of its kind in the UK, and veterans were satisfied with the service they received.

New guidelines will ensure veterans have a right to housing advice, and this will be backed by £2million for those leaving the armed forces. In addition, council tax reductions were introduced in April 2013, and these don't include veterans' benefits when means-testing. Leighton also said veterans were a priority group for the all-Wales re-offending prevention scheme, and that future support for veterans will need to take reservists into account, as UK Government reforms will mean reservists will have a more front line role.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said it was "good news" the the UK government accepted part of British Legion's manifesto where spouses will be able to keep military pensions for life even if they have a new partner. Mark welcomed the work of both governments in signing up all 22 local authorities to the military covenant.

However, he said there was a need to protect real-terms funding for health services for ex-service personnel, and few veterans were aware of the services. Mark also highlighted the importance of peer mentoring of ex-services personnel, as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be complex and might require residential treatment. Mark was concerned that the Welsh Government didn't support residential-based services.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said debates like this were, "an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of armed forces". The Welsh Lib Dems would prefer, what he describes as, a "seemless service" for veterans with mental health issues caused by active service.

He said helplines and websites were not always the best way to deal with such problems, and the Welsh Government weren't doing enough to address mental health issues, with serious treatment and diagnostic delays. Peter also made the important point that PTSD of this sort isn't just confined to the armed forces, but applies to the emergency services.

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) described his 5 day stint in Afghanistan, saying that when he was waiting to leave Kabul, all service personnel had in terms of readjustment to demobilisation was a 10 minute video.

He said veterans are more likely to face homelessness, fall foul of the criminal justice system and suffer  mental health problems. As many of the services often have to be sought out by the person themselves (self-referral), Lindsay believes this meant many "slip through the net". He argued that as so much money was spent on training recruits for combat, similar resources should be available for readjustment.

Lindsay criticised the Ministry of Defence, saying they had a "duty of care" to veterans, and they should stop expecting the "overstretched" Welsh NHS to pick up the tab.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North), said a new British Legion drop-in centre had over 1,000 contacts in the short time it's been set up, and she was impressed by the range of help offered, and the fact it was easily accessible. She raised concerns about people leaving the armed forces before their minimum service requirements (usually 4 years), as they're not always able to access the same levels of support.

Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly) said that as the last British troops were being withdrawn from Afghanistan, there's a more critical need to look at veterans' support; even if defence policy isn't devolved, aftercare is. He believes the Welsh Government should continue to report on their package of support annually.

He raised the issue of finding veterans employment after they've left the services, as they're often young, have transferable skills, and can show teamwork and communication skills. He would, therefore, also like updates on re-employing veterans and the training they receive.

The motion noting the Welsh Government's support for armed forces personnel and calling for ongoing support was unanimously passed.

Policy Responses

There've been two policy announcements from Welsh parties to coincide with Remembrance events.

Firstly, outgoing Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd, launched the party's own set of commitments to helping the estimated 250,000 veterans living in Wales. Their proposals include special Veterans' Courts to deal with criminal justice cases involving veterans, ensuring people leaving the forces have access to information on housing, health and employment and an audit of the numbers of ex-forces people in prison.

Though after what's happening in Scotland, political parties should be very careful about calling something a "vow".

Secondly, the Welsh Conservatives debated their own proposal for an Armed Forces Commissioner yesterday. The Commissioner would be tasked with holding public bodies to account to ensure they live up to their commitments under the military covenant.

The Welsh Conservatives have also long supported an Armed Forces Card, which would provide concessionary or free services, or bump them up waiting lists.

Soldiers are for life, not just for Remembrance Day

The biggest mark of respect we can pay members of the services is
ensuring they're only put in harm's way for the right reasons.
(Pic : Getty Images via Financial Times)
I'm glad the Assembly discuss things like this, but as someone with a strong military pedigree - on both sides of my family - even I feel there's a sentimentality about veterans and remembrance that's bordering on a complex.

Although it was inevitable it was going to go into overdrive this year (and will again next year and in 2018), it's become noticeably stronger over the last decade, and I think it's collective guilt.

Large numbers of us feel guilty about Iraq (perhaps other wars too) – some of us didn't do enough to stop it, others backed it when they shouldn't have, others – like the Labour Party – are forever stained by it. By questioning it we think we're "letting veterans down", so we overcompensate by excessive parades, commemoration and glorification of a modern toy soldier.

That's all very solemn and respectful, but it doesn't address the bigger issues.

First of all, let's dispel the myth that the modern UK military are "defending the country", because they're not. That's rarely their job anymore.
The imminent dangers the UK face are severe weather, flooding and disruption to energy supplies, not a foreign military power.
What the military actually do is implement the forceful side of the UK's foreign policy, whilst also playing a role in international development, counter-terrorism abroad and policing. They're also a de facto further education college for many kids who are otherwise hard to reach, and are amongst the biggest purchasers of goods and services in the public sector.

It's never wrong to question defence or foreign policy, or question whether it's right to send troops into various situations. Doing so doesn't do anything to take away any sacrifices service personnel make, and it might prevent it happening in the first place, which is more respectful than seeing them as disposable heroes.

But we don't force tens of thousands of teenage boys to their deaths anymore and the modern military is highly-skilled, highly-trained and – most importantly of all – voluntary. That's despite it sometimes being an employer of last resort for those who can't find jobs elsewhere, or need the discipline and camaraderie a military career often provides.

In terms of dangerous jobs, you're more likely to be killed or seriously injured on a farm or fishing boat than in the military; while a significant proportion of service personnel will be killed on the roads compared to active service.

Lindsay Whittle hit the nail on the head. Defence isn't devolved. It's the Ministry of Defence and UK Government who should clear up the problems their little sojourns abroad leave the men and women they so actively ask to serve their interests. Or, at the very least, they should make sure the Welsh Government have everything they need to do the job they've largely abandoned.

That's not to understate the mark serving in the armed forces leaves on individuals. The adjustment to civilian life can be incredibly difficult for some, especially if you're used to regimented routines and having everything you need provided for you.

Outside the military, the only other place you get that is prison.


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