Gerald Jones: We must support local authorities to ensure veterans do not face disadvantages
We must help ex-service personnel overcome hurdles to accessing employment, housing and mental health support, says Gerald Jones
As we approach Remembrance Sunday, it is right that we reflect on the immense sacrifices made by our veterans and serving personnel, and the important duty that we owe to support all those who have served our nation.
The Armed Forces Covenant is an important starting point to increase and improve the relationship between the forces community and their local area. But there is a mixed picture with regards to the covenant, and awareness of what it is and what it means can be patchy. In fact, research published last year by the armed forces charity SSAFA found that just 16% of veterans thought that the covenant was being implemented effectively.
There are a number of local authorities that have active champions and deliver the covenant well, but that it sadly not the case across the board. A lack of resources has come up as an issue and it is clear that, as local authorities struggle with cuts to their budgets, it can be difficult for them to deliver all their responsibilities under the covenant in the way that they might wish. Indeed it is estimated that local authorities in England will have had their funding from central government cut by 77% by 2020, and that will clearly have an impact.
Despite this, there are some very good examples of local authorities teaming up and one such project is in Gwent, south-east Wales, where five local authorities employ a covenant liaison officer to work across the five areas to promote the covenant and to draw down funding for projects to promote the armed forces.
It is worth considering how we might enhance the oversight of the covenant to ensure that it is delivered more effectively, but we cannot shy away from the challenges posed by a lack of resources for local authority services.
In my discussions with veterans, it is clear that a lack of support for those experiencing mental ill health is of real concern. The vast majority of personnel and veterans have very good mental health, but we know that there are challenges, particularly for early service leavers. There is a perception among some that once they leave the services, they become forgotten and in some cases it can be difficult for people to access support.
Charities such as Combat Stress offer assistance, in many cases including residential support. However, changes to the contract between NHS England and Combat Stress from next March mean that there will be less funding for residential support for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers and more reliance on community-based services. While Combat Stress will be looking to retain a residential service, a reduction in this facility may occur. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are different arrangements in place through the devolved administrations.
Ex-service personnel have also raised concerns with me about the barriers that they can face in accessing employment. Ex-servicemen and women have a huge amount to offer employers, with a wide range of experiences and skills arising from their time in the forces, but we must all do more to provide additional support to help former service personnel find employment.
The guaranteed interview scheme which Labour has championed would assist in this regard as it would support veterans in overcoming that initial hurdle to employment. Some Labour councils are introducing a local guaranteed interview scheme and hopefully more local authorities will follow suit.
Finally, we must work much harder to ensure that our veterans have access to housing once they leave the forces. We know that service life can require personnel and their families to move frequently to different parts of the country, meaning that when they leave the services some veterans may find themselves at the bottom of the housing list in their area; in the most difficult cases this can even result in homelessness. We need to support local authorities to ensure that veterans do not face disadvantages and that their housing needs are properly addressed as soon as they leave the forces.
Gerald Jones Is Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and shadow veterans ministers