Veteran's services should be needs led, rather than provider-centric, say UK and Canadian experts
Dr. Milroy and Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent met first when the former briefed members of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and spoke at the country’s first Conference of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research (CIMVHR) in Kingston, Ontario. When Parent attended 9ICOAF (9th International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces) in London recently the two men had much to talk about.
Welcoming Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent and his colleague Michel Guay, Director of Corporate Services and Charlottetown Operations at the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) not only gave me the opportunity to repay the hospitality extended to me by them, it afforded a rare opportunity for practitioners from two countries with a shared history and commitment, to exchange views, information and examples of best practices.
There are around 2.56 million veterans in the UK and 670,100 in Canada and while the numbers differ, the problems that veterans need help with are largely the same; mainly societal and all too familiar - poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social isolation, substance and alcohol misuse and mental health issues.
Since 2011 we have had a formal Armed Forces Covenant in the UK but, of course, no formal equivalent to the Canadian Veterans Bill of Rights. They are by no means counterparts and it has been interesting to see how, respectively, they approach many of the same issues. Our Ministry of Defence is responsible for serving personnel but after discharge, when they become civilians again, military charities/associations and the welfare state take over. Unlike Canada, the UK has no Department of Veterans Affairs, headed by its own Minister and supported by dedicated staff. Should we have one? It’s a question I’ve often posed, but while there are many areas of common ground in our approaches to veterans’ wellbeing, there are equally significant differences.
The Bill of Rights, for example, extends to members of veterans families and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; the Armed Forces Covenant is advisory, but not prescriptive. It is a promise by the Nation, to those who served and their families, that they ‘should be treated fairly’. Individual charities determine what help they will provide to veterans and how quickly they will deliver it. Overarching ‘entitlement’ - e.g. to pensions, invalidity benefits, compensation, etc. – is determined by Government, but benevolence and charitable support is ad hoc.
Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) describes a veteran as “any former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who successfully underwent basic training and is honourably released.” In the UK we make no distinction between those who have served honourably and those who have not. MOD defines a UK veteran as ‘Anyone who has served at least one day in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces (Regular or Reserve) or Merchant Mariners who have seen duty on legally defined military operations.’
The UK has a Parliamentary Ombudsman who investigates complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered injustice because a government department or public body has not acted fairly, but s/he deals with all complaints – not just those relating to veterans. I have great respect for the Canada’s Office of the Veterans Ombudsman and believe we should have a similar champion here; a highly experienced individual with a sound grasp of veterans matters on a global scale.
It was clear at our first meeting that we shared much common ground and it was good to get the Ombudsman’s endorsement for VA’s Welfare to Wellbeing model. My PhD (Pathways to the streets for ex-service personnel) is now lodged in the Canadian Library of Parliament as a key reference document.
On October 17, Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent released Continuum of Care: A Journey from Home to Long Term Care; a report considering the current challenges faced by veterans as they age. It has much resonance with VA’s Welfare to Wellbeing model; both are pathways, both aspire to deliver independence with dignity rather than sticking-plaster solutions, both acknowledge that entitlement is often determined by type of service rather than need.
We are absolutely in agreement that provision for veterans must be needs led rather than provider-centric – and that services should be easy to access. Ironically in the UK we now seem to be sprouting a plethora of ‘one stop shops’ purporting to be all things to all veterans. Canada actually has that, in its Department of Veterans Affairs. The relationship between VAC and the OVO has been a rewarding and mutually enriching one and although we are organised differently in the UK (i.e. a charity and part of a government department) we have evolved towards a similar, non-judgmental position and the free-flow of information between us makes for a great benchmarking exercise.
VA and VAC offer support to ex-servicemen and women in need regardless of age, ethnicity, rank, gender, orientation or length of service – a commitment echoed by the Veterans Ombudsman’s One Veteran theme which “encapsulates the conviction that access to benefits and services should be based on Veterans’ needs, not on the nature of their service or where and when they served”. Evidence of need, not valour, is the prerequisite for seeking help.
What VA does in the UK has impact worldwide and its model, commended by The Centre for Social Justice, has been referenced by visitors from Taiwan, Australia, Denmark, Belgium, Japan, Argentina and Israel. But our relationship with Canada is truly special.
Guy Parent said, "I thank Dr. Milroy for taking the time to give me a really good understanding of the work of Veterans Aid and other initiatives and organizations helping Veterans during my recent visit to London. I place a high value on my relationship with Dr. Milroy and will continue to consult with him on homelessness, as well as on other subject areas concerning Veterans’ wellbeing. Knowledge sharing of our best practices is moving our work forward.”