Keynote address by Dr. Lewis Moonie MP, Minister for Veterans to 3rd Veterans Plenary Forum -
Wednesday 26 March 2003
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. I would like to welcome you to this, the third meeting of the Veterans Forum in Plenary session. This is obviously a very busy time for all of us in the Ministry of Defence. And at times like this it is very important that we establish clear priorities and then focus on them. My presence here today along with General Palmer, the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Personnel and the presentation team that has been assembled for today's event provides the best possible illustration of the importance that this Government attaches to its Veterans Initiative.
It is now two year since I was appointed Veterans Minister and I have just written to the Prime Minister to make him aware of what we have achieved in the last 2 years. In the same spirit of open government that I have tried to foster in taking forward the Veterans Initiative I will now share with you the main points that I made in my letter and what I have proposed as a way ahead.
The task I was given was to ensure that veterans' issues were properly understood, appropriately prioritised and effectively addressed across Government.
The key aim I set for the initiative was to improve delivery of services to veterans by strengthening partnership with the veterans' organisations and establishing strategic links across government. As a result of our work on the Veterans Forum, Task Force the Forum Working Groups and indeed this Plenary Forum I felt able to tell the Prime Minister that this aim has been substantially achieved and that we have a sound basis for further improvement.
I have also told him that I have concluded that there is no requirement for a large, independent UK department for veterans similar to those found in a number of other countries, including the United States and Australia. The reason is that most services for UK veterans are provided as part of the mainstream of state support or by the voluntary sector. This underlines the importance of the veterans partnership and the approach we have taken to develop strategic linkages across Departments for dealing with veterans-related matters.
My report highlights the great strength that comes from embedding veterans-related responsibilities in MOD. This is because of the synergy between in-service and post-service life and the 'through life' approach adopted in the United Kingdom's Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy (AFOPS). This approach recognises that today's recruits and Service personnel are the veterans of the future and that policies in respect of recruitment and in-Service life have clear synergies with those for veterans. Reports that the US and Australian veterans administrations are attempting to develop closer links with their own defence organisations in order to improve their arrangements for the transition from Service to civilian life, suggests that we are on the right track.
The final point of context to be established is that in developing our veterans-related agenda we have always borne in mind the key fact that the overwhelming majority of UK veterans find Service life a positive experience and resettle well into civilian life. However, for a variety of reasons, a minority do not, including veterans with problems shared with wider society. The moves that have been taken to help them therefore connect closely with this Government's wider initiatives to address vulnerability.
The success of partnership and cross-Government working requires networks at working level which embrace a wide range of different organisations. These reinforce links established in the Forum, Task Force and working groups. Within MOD, there are strengthening ties between the Veterans Agency and the branches responsible for aspects of veterans-related policy. Likewise, there is increasing cooperation between MOD and Service branches dealing with veterans-related matters and 'in-service' issues such as health, housing, and resettlement, all of which have a 'through-life' dimension. Externally, MOD is establishing closer working relations with not only other Government Departments and ex-Service organisations but also the Devolved Administrations and local authorities in order to address both policy and specific practical issues affecting veterans. Earlier in today's programme you will have heard about other links involving cooperation with social charities such as Shelter, and Business in the Community and initiatives such as Better Government for Older People.
No Government report, and certainly not one addressed to this Prime Minister is complete without drawing describing the "outcome" of the work that has been undertaken.
By this I mean the tangible benefits that have been delivered to veterans.
I am pleased to be able to announce today the publication of a new Government document outlining the key strands of our strategy for veterans. This underlines that the three key pillars of our approach to veterans are to ensure that veterans receive recognition for their contribution to society, that Service personnel receive excellent preparation for a successful transition to civilian life following service, and that support is then available from Government or the voluntary sector where needed.
Another key outcome has been the establishment of a wider role for the Veterans Agency. In addition to its existing work on war pensions and associated welfare tasks, the Veterans Agency will act as the principal deliverer of MOD advice to veterans on the services and support available to them. As part of this wider role, the Veterans Agency has introduced two new services for the wider veterans' community - a free telephone Helpline and a website.
The Helpline now provides a single point of contact within the MOD for information or advice on a wide range of veterans' issues. The number of enquiries averages some 32,000 calls per month.
The website provides extensive information on a range of issues of interest to ex-Service personnel, including services offered by the VA and other parts of the MOD. It also has links to ex-Service organisations and other Government Departments. The VA is continuing to review ways of enhancing the accessibility and usability of the website; a new trend analysis system has revealed that visits to the site now average some 26,000 a month. The Veterans Agency have set-up a demonstration terminal here at the Victory Services Club for those of you who would like to see the website and I know that they would welcome any suggestions you might have for further improvements.
Another key area of work concerns expansion of resettlement arrangements. The Services already provide comprehensive resettlement support for the majority of personnel leaving to rejoin civilian life. The resettlement package includes a job finding service, workshops, employment consultancy, training and housing and financial briefings and the majority of personnel make this important transition successfully. Under these arrangements, Service personnel who have served over 5 years are eligible for a full range of Resettlement services from the Career Transition Partnership (CTP), provided they have not been compulsorily discharged. I am in no doubt that this has been a success story and, currently, 94% of eligible Service Leavers are in employment within 6 months of discharge.
Work is now in hand to identify those personnel who are not eligible for the CTP resettlement package or who may otherwise be at risk of experiencing difficulty in transferring to civilian life, in order to provide appropriate guidance and advice before they leave the Services. I must stress that personnel who are medically discharged are entitled to the full resettlement provision regardless of the time that they have served. For those other personnel who are not entitled to resettlement support, measures are in hand to identify and assist those who might be most at risk. The MOD has already conducted a pilot scheme for personnel who might be considered 'vulnerable' and who are not entitled to resettlement provision. We are building on this work, and it is the intention to provide a 'signposting' service, using the existing tiers of resettlement provision. As a minimum, these Service Leavers will be directed to appropriate organisations, including the devolved administrations and local authorities and, of course, ex-Service charities.
The Government's challenging new approach to tackling homelessness is one that focuses as much on the problems homeless people face as the places they live. It has a clear veterans dimension and there are now specific veterans-related initiatives. The Shelter and SPACES projects in Colchester and Catterick continue to be successful. The SPACES Project Team identified the need for a local, short-term supported housing facility for service leavers for whom no immediate housing provision could be found. The concept, strongly supported by the ODPM's Homelessness Directorate and the Local Authority in Richmond, North Yorkshire has led to ECHG purchasing a property in Richmond, which they have converted into 13 self-contained studio flats. The flats are used to provide short-term accommodation (between 6-9 months being the norm) for Service Leavers who are most at risk of becoming vulnerable to rough sleeping immediately after they are discharged from the Services. In November last year I was delighted to be able to hand the keys to the first occupants of this new initiative which is now called the Galleries Project.
There is a range of other areas in which we have been able, or hope, to ensure that veterans receive their proper entitlements. Examples include:
- Working with local authorities and a range of other organisations to ensure consistency of the treatment of War Pensions and War Widow(er) Pensions in means testing for housing benefit and council tax purposes. Although there is a statutory £10.00 disregard applied to these pensions, local authorities have discretion to apply full disregards. My staff have been supporting The Royal British Legion and others who have been encouraging the remaining authorities in England who do not apply the full disregard to do so. The intention here is to avoid the 'post code' lottery which has caused grave concern among some veterans' organisations.
- There have also been some improvements in arrangements for War Pensions, including equalisation of widows' and widowers' entitlements and enhanced eligibility for Unemployability Supplement.
- We have also raised and sustained awareness of the provisions for priority medical treatment of war pensioners. In April last year, John Hutton, my colleague on the Veterans Task Force, wrote to remind other Health Ministers of the National Health Service's continued obligation to provide priority examination and treatment for war pensioners for the conditions for which they receive a pension or gratuity. I subsequently received confirmation from the Ministers concerned that they have reminded NHS Trusts across the UK of this commitment.
- A lot of effort has been expended in the Department of Work and Pensions to improve eligibility regulations in respect of Incapacity Benefit for Service personnel discharged for medical reasons. This will resolve an anomaly discovered in 1999 and raised with some persistence at the last Plenary Forum by one of our delegates, which disadvantages personnel who go on to claim Benefit after being medically discharged from Service. I am extremely grateful for DWP's efforts in this area, on which they are the lead Department.
- We have begun work with the Department of Health to clarify the requirements of the Care Standards Act and Care Standards Commission as applied to existing Care Home providers. These matters are of concern to many older veterans and their representative organisations. I have made clear my appreciation to the DoH for taking the lead on this issue.
- You heard earlier today what the education working group has been doing to improve awareness and recognition of veterans and about our plans for research and evidence gathering. The potential scope of veterans-related work is wide and many issues are complex- particularly those involving possible causal relationships between Service and veterans' medical conditions. To ensure we focus on the right issues in the right way, we need good quality information. In line with wider government policy, I am therefore keen to ensure that veterans-related policy and activities are formulated from evidence-based research, where necessary specially commissioned. At present, there is very limited published peer-reviewed research on UK veterans, and so the development of a research strategy forms an important element of our continuing work on veterans-related issues.
If I could now turn to preparations for key commemorations. Plans are well advanced for a service and reception at Westminster Abbey on 9 July to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of hostilities in the Korean War. The service will be attended by Her Majesty the Queen and will commemorate a war which was of major importance but which has been largely overlooked by most of our society since it took place. I should like to acknowledge the close co-operation which we have received from the British Korean Veterans Association in planning the event.
I have recently given approval in principle to a proposed service and lunch to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2005. The emphasis will be very much on veterans, both from the Services and on the Home Front. A scoping study will now develop the outline plans. The event will offer an opportunity for an educational programme, which will be considered by the appropriate Veterans' Initiative Working Group.
I would now like to say something of where we go now on the Veterans Initiative. Though a good deal of progress has been made, much remains to be done. Examples for further work include:
- Review of the Working Groups. You heard earlier today of this review. I shall lead it. I want to ensure that the groups focus on the right issues. I shall report to a special meeting of the Veterans Forum in July.
- Further development of the VA so that it becomes the main government provider of co-ordination, management and delivery of service to veterans. This includes a possible change in the role of the VA welfare service so that it is integrated more closely with those in the public and voluntary sectors. Its role as the principal source of information to veterans on the support available should be enhanced by the new communications strategy being finalised by one of the Veterans Initiative working groups chaired by a representative of the DWP.
- Further development of MOD's strategy for veterans and its integration as closely as possible with those of independent partner organisations into joint action plans.
- Development of the dedicated research programme on veterans issues, building from existing King's College work and other current projects.
- Funding. In addition to existing funding arrangements, MOD aims to establish a Challenge Fund to 'pump prime' and support new veterans-related projects. If all goes well, we will be coming to you soon to invite bids and ideas for funding.
- Increased international cooperation at government level on veterans' issues with the aim of sharing research and exchanging information on policy and best practice.
- As an ex-psychiatrist Mental Health Issues are a particular concern of mine. Mental health problems affecting veterans is a major area of concern, particularly in relation to issues such as psychological illness. We are discussing with the DoH how best to cooperate in dealing with some of the key issues.
- Finally improved Coordination of Work in Support of Older Veterans is a natural contender for further work, and one in which veterans' matters need to be addressed as part of the wider approach to policy for older citizens.
In sum, I strongly believe that the Government's Veterans Initiative has so far been a success and that the Partnerships that have been established are real and realistic. We have achieved good practical outcomes and are now firmly on-line. But there is a great deal left to be done.
Thank you for your attention, I would now like to hand-over to Ian Townsend who will be acting as "ring-master" for the Open Forum session, I look forward to your questions.