Peter Heaton-Jones MP: We must offer our armed forces veterans more support around living conditions and mental health
Conservative MP Peter Heaton-Jones writes ahead of his Adjournment debate today on support for armed forces veterans, in advance of Armed Forces Day.
My grandfather fought in the Great War. He told the Army he was born in 1895 and enrolled at the start of the conflict. Sixty years later, when he died, we discovered the truth. He had lied about his age. He was so eager to serve King and Country that he’d signed up as a 15-year-old boy.
A hundred years after the end of the First World War, I am now the proud custodian of my grandfather’s service medals and ribbons. But, I’m ashamed to say, we know nothing else about his part in the conflict.
Like many of his generation, he never talked about it. Never. He was alive until I was ten, but I don’t recall having a single conversation about the war. That’s just the way it was.
How times have changed, and quite rightly so.
Today, we are far more aware of the service of our armed forces veterans. We understand better the challenges they face. We openly acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe them. And we face sometimes difficult questions about whether society and state are doing enough to provide the support our veterans need and deserve.
Those conversations are at the forefront of our minds this week, in the run up to Armed Forces Day on Saturday. The centrepiece of our country’s relationship with its veterans is the Armed Forces Covenant, introduced in 2011. It’s a promise by the nation to ensure that those who serve, or have served, and their families, are treated fairly and suffer no disadvantage. It also allows for ‘special consideration’, especially where a veteran has been injured or a family bereaved.
The covenant has achieved a great deal. It’s now embedded in the NHS constitution; the Covenant-funded Veterans' Gateway provides a single point of contact to signpost Veterans to the most appropriate support; and all local authorities in Great Britain, as well as more than 2,500 other organisations and companies, have signed up to its principles.
That’s all to be welcomed. But I mentioned ‘difficult questions’, and they cannot be ignored.
Chief amongst them, I believe, must be whether we are doing enough to recognise and support veterans suffering from mental health conditions. The Budget in March 2015 included £8.4 million to expand mental health services for former armed forces personnel. It’s a start, but our growing understanding of the long-term impacts of active service mean we should look to go further.
On living conditions, we need a more joined-up system. It is good that local authorities who provide housing and social welfare services in our communities have all now signed up the Covenant. But we must be sure that they are all delivering practical help targeted to veterans in a timely and sufficient manner.
And there is one more difficult question: is it right that our veterans live in fear of criminal charges over events which took place twenty, thirty, forty years ago, in circumstances that most of us can barely comprehend? That’s an issue being fully considered elsewhere, and rightly so.
For now, as we approach Armed Forces Day, let’s ensure we continue to do all we can to provide the help and support our veterans need. Let’s acknowledge the outstanding work of the many statutory bodies, charities, voluntary organisations and individuals who work so hard in this area.
And let’s do what my Grandfather and I never had the chance to do: let’s talk with pride about the service of our veterans, and recognise that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Peter Heaton-Jones is the Conservative MP for North Devon
Dr Hugh Milroy OBE PhD, CEO Veterans Aid responded, saying 'I applaud Mr Heaton-Jones MP for his wholehearted support for the veteran community but from the frontline delivery perspective of Veterans Aid I don’t believe this goes far enough. I say that because I know from hard won experience that there is a massive gulf between signing the “Covenant” and actually delivering something to the individual veteran. ' Read Veterans Aid's full response here.