For many years, the personnel of Britain’s armed forces have been celebrated as some of the most dedicated, professional, and compassionate troops anywhere in the world. But what of these brave men and women once their military service is done?
Ask many politicians how we should serve and protect those who have often risked everything to protect us and our interests, and they will probably point you to the military covenant. This is a piece of legislation that sets out the relationship between the nation, the government and the armed forces; recognising that we have a moral obligation to give thanks to serving and former troops and their families.
According to the Government website, the aim of this legislation is to:
“Redress the disadvantages that the armed forces community may face in comparison to other citizens and to recognise sacrifices made.”
While in principle, the military covenant is a fine way to repay our debt of gratitude to the armed forces, the reality is somewhat less simple. The fact is, the military covenant is little known, often overlooked and equally as often, blatantly ignored by those providing critical services in ‘civvy’ street.
Take the case of a homeless, 82-Year-Old veteran, known only as George. In a damning indictment of the covenant, George recently passed away from bronchial pneumonia hours after being evicted from a Manchester squat along with twelve other former soldiers.
This was a man who served his country with such pride, that he continued to wear his military service medal at all times, despite being homeless for twenty years.
We, collectively as a nation, failed George and his small ‘Band of Brothers.’ Even sadder is that the case of George and his friends is not an isolated incident. We as a nation now have an estimated 9,000 veterans sleeping rough in the UK.
Add into this the estimated 3,000 veterans requiring urgent help for PTSD and other wounds each year – a figure that is predicted to rise sharply over the coming years – and we can see just what a ticking time bomb of failure we have within our veterans community.
The fact is, much of the responsibility for this mess is down to years of mismanagement of veteran affairs by successive governments who were only too quick to send our troops to war. Instead of putting into place a structured and funded organisation dedicated to working on veterans issues, they instead prefer to pass the responsibility of care to charities and other voluntary organisations.
And while I applaud the work of institutions like the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, Help for Heroes and the hundreds of other, smaller, independent charities providing care and services to veterans, the current situation is in military parlance, ‘not bloody good enough!’
And this is one of the reasons I get so frustrated when I see the media lavishing attention on asylum seekers and economic migrants. How can sections of the media give such concentration to one niche group – people who have neither been born or contributed to this country – and promote the idea that they be given priority over people who have risked their lives to defend this nation?
In fact, it was even suggested at the height of the migrant crisis that those arriving in the UK could be housed in former MoD properties, while we have 9,000 veterans sleeping rough.
Where is the outcry over the thousands of veterans sleeping rough this Christmas; or who are crawling the walls due to not getting the care they so richly deserve; or the families crammed into relative’s box-rooms as they are homeless in all but name?
There simply is not one, as veteran issues are not seen as sexy and more often than not, do not suit the agendas of those in power. To me, this is wrong, and something must be done!
No longer can we ignore people like George and his mates, simply because they have complex problems.
No longer can we allow veterans to languish at the bottom of waiting lists for housing and care.
And no longer should we accept that veterans are not given the national respect they so richly deserve.
So, what to do?
In a mostly overlooked conference speech two years ago, I announced proposals for a UK Veterans Affairs Department, following the model of the VA already operating in the United States. The aim of this department would be simple – to deliver the promises made to veterans under the military covenant – for life.
This new agency would provide a “one stop shop” which would bring together all veterans services including the MOD Veterans Policy Unit, the Veterans Agency, the Defence Rehabilitation Centre, as well as to incorporate many of the government funded critical care roles currently served by charity providers.
The aim of using this approach is to stop the highly disparate approach to veterans care we currently employ while saving time and money that could be better spent on providing world class, frontline veterans services.
As part of these changes, I would also like to see a raft of supporting legislation. We need Government action to allow the social housing points system to give priority to veterans; to provide work in the public sector, and to provide healthcare at the point of need in the NHS to those presenting a newly introduced veterans card.
Successive Governments have ignored the effects of illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through military service, and research bears out that in many cases, veteran homelessness is caused directly or indirectly by mental heath issues. However, I for one do not underestimate the damage that PTSD has on servicemen and women and their families and am determined to stop this travesty, especially considering that mental health issues can surface many years after the event.
Put simply; there is no need in this country for veterans to be sleeping in the streets; to suffer the effects of ill health, or to be consigned to the dole. George and every other veteran in this country deserve better!
They deserve what is already theirs as part of the military covenant, and I am determined they will get the help, care and respect they deserve.