Welsh Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 131

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee

on Thursday 25 October 2012

Members present:

David T. C. Davies (Chair)

Geraint Davies

Jonathan Edwards

Nia Griffith

Mrs Siân C. James

Karen Lumley

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Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Hazel Hunt, and Kate Swinhoe, Welsh Warrior (The Richard Hunt Foundation), gave evidence.

Q311 Chair: I begin by welcoming Ms Hunt and Ms Swinhoe. Thank you very much indeed for coming along today. I know that we know each other well, but, if you want to speak for a minute or two and explain the background to the charity that you have set up, that would be great, then we will have a few questions for you, if that is okay.

Hazel Hunt: That is fine; no problem at all. Good morning, my name is Hazel Hunt, and this is my associate Kate Swinhoe. We are from Welsh Warrior-the Richard Hunt Foundation. The Welsh Warrior charity was set up in memory of my son Richard Hunt, who was the two-hundredth soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, on 15 August 2009. We set up Welsh Warrior following our visit to Selly Oak Hospital, where Richard died, because it was only then that my eyes were opened to the true horror of the amount of injuries and the severity of injuries suffered by those who were coming back.

My background is that I did my state registered nurse training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in the late 1970s and then became a veterinary nurse, but even after all my years of nursing, both humans and animals, I must admit that some of the injuries that I saw on that day in Selly Oak were absolutely horrific. I thought, ‘What can I do that would make Richard’s death not be in vain?’ So, I decided to take up his mantra, which was that he was there for his mates and they were there for him. I thought, ‘Right, we will stand in for Richard’.

I looked around and started talking to other service families. Listening to their experiences of the help or lack of help, and of not knowing who to go to or turn to, I decided that too many of them were falling through the gaps that the larger charities were not picking up. They had no idea who they could go to for help. Especially here in Wales, there seemed to be a definite lack of overlap of picking these people up, so I thought that that is what we could do. So, our mission statement within the charity is that any Welsh serviceman or servicewoman who is injured while attached to the Welsh regiments out on operational theatres is entitled to come to us for help, and we also help the bereaved families. Our remit is actually very wide: it is not just those who are serving within the Welsh regiments themselves; it covers any Welsh serviceman or servicewoman serving.

Q312 Chair: We were looking at your submission and you estimate that about 20% of the armed forces are Welsh or are connected to Wales in some way. It is obviously difficult to get accurate figures, but how accurate do you think that figure is?

Hazel Hunt: They are based on the Government’s own figures from what we could gain from the Office for National Statistics and from the Ministry of Defence’s sites, which are not always easy to navigate, as you say. It is extremely difficult to get accurate figures. It is strange because you can get, quite easily, the percentage of figures for Commonwealth troops, but for English, Welsh and Scottish troops, it is difficult. However, the MOD, along with the NHS, is the largest employer in Wales, so going on the figures that are available, we have calculated that it is about 20%. That covers the whole of the armed forces.

Q313 Chair: We have found it quite difficult to get accurate figures from the MOD on the number of veterans within the UK or within Wales. One of the reasons we are told is that veterans are reluctant to maintain any contact, in some cases, with the MOD after they have left. Is that a fair comment?

Hazel Hunt: That is very true. Unfortunately, the MOD has an attitude problem, I am afraid. It is very reluctant to give out any kind of information. It can be very obstructive when it wants to be, and I am not surprised that the veterans do not want to let the MOD have anything to do with them. Any soldier that you talk to will tell you that, as far as the MOD is concerned, they are just numbers on a piece of paper. There is a definite lack of empathy with the veterans.

Q314 Chair: Is there an easy solution to that? Should it be another agency perhaps that deals with them afterwards?

Hazel Hunt: I do not know whether they need another agency, but certainly within the MOD, there needs to be a change of attitude. Unfortunately, when you need any kind of information, you find that there are several offices within the MOD dealing with it, and each one seems to think that the other one is dealing with it. There is a definite lack of communication within the MOD that needs to be sorted. However, I do not think that you need another agency on top of that.

Q315 Chair: One issue that has been coming up a lot has been the issue of co-ordination between different services, particularly the NHS and the MOD. I wonder whether you have found that in your work for the charity-a lack of co-ordination and records not being handed over and that sort of thing.

Hazel Hunt: Yes, very much so. As I said, the MOD is reluctant to let information go even when it has been asked for along official channels. There are numerous cases of medical records that are only partly passed on, or not at all. When one of the most well-known injured soldiers in the country was due to go home after a very lengthy rehabilitation, his mother was assured that everything would be in place: the local health authority would know all about it and would be picking him up. Literally, within two to three days of the soldier going home, she rang the local health authority herself and it had never heard of him. Those were records that should have been coming from Headley Court. That is the most well-known case, but it is happening more often than not. Communication is not working.

Q316 Chair: Are these problems UK-wide, or is there anything specific in Wales-

Hazel Hunt: It is UK-wide unfortunately, so it is not specific to Wales, but it is definitely a massive problem.

Q317 Chair: Is there anything in particular that the UK Government could do, or that Wales could perhaps take a lead on, to better signpost veterans towards the help and services that are already available to them?

Hazel Hunt: Again, it all goes back to the attitude that comes out of the MOD. I know that certain aspects have to be kept under wraps and so on, such as weapons and that side of things, but details about soldiers and their health are all on computer; there is no need for any of this to be happening. It comes down to this endemic attitude of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and that should not be the case. That is the biggest problem that the NHS, the GPs and the soldiers experience.

Chair: By the way, because we know each other rather well, I am grilling you a little bit.

Hazel Hunt: That is okay.

Chair: If you want to come in, Miss Swinhoe, you are welcome to. Jonathan Edwards has the next questions.

Q318 Jonathan Edwards: That was quite a strong criticism of the MOD. Why do you think that it has that attitude towards veterans?

Hazel Hunt: It is endemic, I am afraid, and it has been for many generations. It seems to be a human failing in general that the higher up you go in whatever corporation you are working in, the more you tend to lose the knowledge of what is happening at grass-roots level. Having spoken to numerous families, those whose relatives are injured soldiers and those who have been bereaved, it seems to be an endemic attitude. It is a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians perhaps.

Q319 Jonathan Edwards: Turning to Wales, do you think that mental health issues among veterans are dealt with adequately in the NHS?

Hazel Hunt: No, they are not. Unfortunately, the military ethos is so special-it is not like anything that you find in civilian life. Unfortunately, there is that gap between civilians and the military because we no longer have a national service, and unless you have a relative who is working in the military, you no longer have that connection. The lads will tell you that they feel much happier dealing with someone who has some kind of military background in general. There is a good start with the veterans’ health service. We went and visited that on Monday, down at Panteg hospital in Griffithstown. We were impressed with their attitude and work ethos, but, again, there is a lack of funding and a lack of community mental health workers, for a start, and also there is the fact that, along those lines, there does not seem to be any military input.

Q320 Jonathan Edwards: What added value has the all-Wales veterans health and wellbeing service provided?

Hazel Hunt: As I say, it is a good start. Apparently, they have already had around 99 referrals this year, which shows that quite a large number of people are coming through, which will only increase. However, it needs to be built on rapidly. I would prefer there to be a lot more clinicians involved.

Q321 Jonathan Edwards: If you were in charge of health policy in Wales, how would you improve services for veterans, especially in mental health?

Hazel Hunt: We need to have a partnership with the military. I know of one military-civilian partnership that has been ongoing in the NHS in Hull. I know it was three years ago and I do not know if Chris Long is still there as the chief executive, but he was an ex-officer from the first Gulf war and he took on the chief executive position. He was approached by an ex-paratrooper, who said, ‘Chris, these things are not working; you have ex-soldiers sitting in the corridors alongside women who have had bad births or people who have had a bad motorcycle accident’. You cannot compare that kind of post-traumatic stress with the post-traumatic stress that these lads have experienced. They are out there on a six-month tour. Those stresses and strains are on those young men’s soldiers for the full six months that they are out there, which is a massive amount of responsibility. They then come back and are expected to slot back into normal life. They have seen some horrific things out there and they do not compare to civilians’ mental health problems. So, Chris Long approached his own health board and the army and they provided NHS facilities that were only being used half a week, but were still there. Military psychologists and psychiatrists would come in two days a week to use those NHS facilities. So, the lads were being treated in the NHS, but with a military psychologist and psychiatrist-it worked very well. It is that kind of thing that I would like to see rolled out right across the country.

Q322 Jonathan Edwards: There has been some debate among witnesses about whether there should be a specific residential rehabilitation centre in Wales. Where do you stand on that?

Hazel Hunt: Absolutely, there should be. Why should the lads that live here and are rehabilitated back home here have to keep travelling miles to go and get treatment? As well as that, there is a knock-on effect for their relatives. The lads themselves always do better when they are being treated together, close to home, so that they know that they are with their families and friends. I know that there are a lot of lads who are having problems with travel because, with all the cutbacks that we are having to make, the travel grants and things like that are not available. We have had people who have been stranded at airports and train stations at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. because that is where they have just been left and they have to make their own way to the rehabilitation centre. As I say, it is not just the lads; it is their relatives as well. I think that there are enough veterans in Wales to warrant our own rehabilitation centre.

Q323 Nia Griffith: You have made a very good case for having our own veterans’ rehabilitation centre, and I firmly believe that people need to be near their families and near their communities. However, we have had the opposite view put to this committee. We have had the view put to us, which you touched on briefly there, about the support that can come from other people who have had similar experiences. So, the view has been put to this committee that having fewer, more centralised and specialist places is a better option than having more locally available help. I wonder how you would respond to that.

Hazel Hunt: I am talking about the battle back centres, which are done in conjunction between the MOD, Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion. Unfortunately, the remit for that is that the MOD says it has to be near a garrison town. Of course, Wales no longer has a garrison town, but we do have an enormous number of military personnel who are based here. I think that it is grossly unfair, given the figures that we have been able to come up with of 20% of the armed forces being Welsh; why on earth should we not have our own? We have the headquarters of 160 (Wales) Brigade at Brecon and anybody and everybody in the armed forces who has to do any kind of infantry training, including the SAS, have to come to Wales to do it. When they are injured or are being rehabilitated, why on earth should they have to go out of area? It is just not right.

Q324 Karen Lumley: We have heard some concerns about the quality of the resettlement process and what happens to the veterans when they leave the army. You have obviously expressed some concerns; could you share a few of those with us?

Hazel Hunt: Yes, indeed. I am afraid that the army’s figures are that 70% of service leavers, as far as it is concerned, get some kind of advice or training to become civilians. That means that 30%, one third of the army alone, are not getting the knowledge that is required to help them to settle back into civilian life. In the twenty-first century, I think that that is appalling. I know that no system is perfect, but they are getting no help whatsoever with housing. If a prisoner leaves jail, they will not release that prisoner unless he has a specific address to go to. You do not get anything like that in our armed forces and I do not understand why. These are men and women who have given their utmost, especially those who have gone out into operational theatres, and yet they are being treated worse than a prisoner would be. I think that that is absolutely disgusting. They have no help with housing and they certainly get very little financial advice.

Talking with staff the other day, I heard that their last four cases involved young soldiers coming out of the army with something like £17,000-worth of debt. Why? That is because they have had no financial advice given to them whatsoever. The armed forces like to promote themselves as a complete career. It is especially true with the single lads; they live in single men’s barracks and they have their food and their rent all taken out from their wages. So, their wages are what they can spend and, being young men of a certain age, as my son was, I know quite well that they go out and they want to party, because they have been working hard, and they want to buy the latest clothes, the latest CDs, the latest Xbox 360 game, whatever. And they do. But they are given no sound financial advice to tell them, ‘When you go out into civilian life, you are going to have to pay for electricity, gas and rent, or you will have a mortgage’. None of that is given to them on a voluntary basis, and I know that, especially within the big garrison towns, you have banks and building societies that would be quite happy to send someone along once a week, or once a month, to teach these lads how to budget. They teach them how to be a soldier.

As Kate quite often says, they take you into basic training, they take the top of your head off, they scramble your brains, put it back on, and boom, you are a solider. You can be a civilian within a matter of hours with no back-up whatsoever. If they are going to offer a complete career, they have to start addressing those issues.

Q325 Karen Lumley: One of the things that has most impressed me in this inquiry was our visit to Veterans First Point in Edinburgh. Have you heard of it?

Hazel Hunt: I have heard of it, but I have not visited it.

Q326 Karen Lumley: The Scottish Government has established a place where veterans can go to get advice about these things that you are talking about. Is that something that you would like to see happening in Wales?

Hazel Hunt: Absolutely, yes. I know that they will probably say that there will be a north-south divide because the best point of contact would be Cardiff, because Cardiff has a very large recruiting office. However, most definitely, there should be somewhere that has a great big sign that says, ‘If you have a problem, come here and we will try to sort you out’. I thoroughly agree with that.

Q327 Mrs James: I am quite interested to hear what you say about lack of preparation. When we were at St Dunstan’s-I apologise, I still call it St Dunstan’s-near Llandudno, we talked to veterans, who, when we asked them had they wanted this support when they left the army, said ‘no’ and said that they were young, as you described, and that they were quite confident. However, I have worked in the prison service, and all of these things are in place in the prison service. You do not release a prisoner in this country unless he has already been linked up to a doctor and that any additional care that he needs, for example with finances and a home, have been considered. So, I find it surprising that we do not do this for our armed forces when we do it for our prisoners.

Hazel Hunt: That is exactly our point. Unfortunately, our armed forces seem to be almost second-class citizens. You find that there are prisoners and people with other problems, such as drug addicts, alcoholics and immigrants, getting far better treatment or advice made available to them than our soldiers, sailors and airmen. It is absolutely disgusting that these people, who are prepared to die for this country, should come back and find that it is not the place for heroes that they are being promised. They are being told, ‘You will go to the top of any health problems list’. That is just beginning to start, when it should have been in place a long time ago. They are being told, ‘You will go to the top of the housing list’. I have talked to squaddies who have approached their councils to ask, ‘When are you going to give me a flat?’, only to be told, ‘In two or three years’ time, maybe, if you are lucky. You will have to go to the bottom of the list, like everyone else.’.

What national Government is saying and what local government is saying are completely different things. It needs to be looked at, because you are asking these people to do their utmost, and they do. You have to remember that, quite often, they are very young. Many of them will have gone straight into the army from school. So, they have no experience of life outside of the armed forces, and, yet, you just dump them and expect them to carry on. That is why so many of them are falling through the gaps.

Q328 Nia Griffith: On what you were saying about the housing issue and ways in which we could improve it, do you have any examples of local authorities that are doing a good job? Are there any that you can note?

Hazel Hunt: I have been in contact with one ex-soldier whom we have helped. He has had quite good help, once they knew that he existed.

Q329 Chair: Which local authority was that?

Hazel Hunt: That was in Bridgend. Once they knew that he was out on the streets and having problems, he was put into a hostel, and within six months he was given a housing association flat. It is his little castle, quite literally; it has been the saving of him.

Q330 Nia Griffith: Is the problem then that the veterans do not self-identify and the council does not necessarily pick them up? Would there be, for example, an advantage in all council housing forms having a tick box that asked, ‘Are you a veteran?’, so that it would automatically be a question that was asked, and, therefore, answered?

Hazel Hunt: Absolutely. I think that that would be a brilliant idea. I also think that it would be extremely good if there was more communication. Again, it comes back to the MOD, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998. I am afraid that the MOD hides behind the Data Protection Act. It knows, to a great extent, where its veterans are-the people who are leaving. It has a list of the lads who are being made redundant and so on, so it has a rough idea of the areas they are going back to. Again, it could have an input, if it knows that so many soldiers from a particular area are going to be leaving the forces and, therefore, may be approached. However, it would be ideal to have that tick box on the council forms themselves.

Q331 Nia Griffith: Siân has mentioned liaison within the prison service. Are you saying that there should be someone in the MOD who carries out much better liaison-

Hazel Hunt: Yes.

Nia Griffith: -so that the MOD asks a soldier leaving the forces where he or she will be settling and, obviously with his or her permission, contacts the necessary authorities?

Hazel Hunt: Yes, I do. The lads themselves find it a huge shock when they leave the armed forces. Despite the nature of their job, they have actually been looked after while they were employed in the army, and they are shocked by the extent to which the door slams on them as soon as they are no longer employed by the MOD. From one step back, I can understand that. The army, the navy and the RAF can only worry about the people who are in and are fit for duty because of resources, finances and so on. They have to worry about the ones they know they can put forward for whatever the situation might be. Therefore, they do not have the resources or finances to deal with those who are no longer with them. However, that does not mean to say that we then sweep them under the carpet. The veterans society needs to be much better looked after. When you consider that some of the bigger charities have been going since the end of the first world war-I am sorry, I know I hope for a utopia that is never going to exist, but the MOD certainly needs to be doing far more than what is happening at the moment. It is too busy congratulating itself, I think.

Q332 Nia Griffith: I want to push this a bit further. The MOD tells us that it does all of these things, so what we are saying is that we need someone with a bit of distance from the MOD to act in a civilian liaison-type role for that transition to ensure that no-one falls through the net and that these things are set in place to help them on their way.

Hazel Hunt: Yes, absolutely. I think that we could get that 30% figure down to under 10%, which would be ideal. Well, the ideal would obviously be that no-one fell through the net, but that is not realistic. However, I think that we can get it down to under 10% if there was someone like that in place or a department with that responsibility. As I say, it does not necessarily have to be completely independent, because you obviously have to work with the people in the MOD, but, yes, they could have an independent person overseeing this.

Kate Swinhoe: May I just say that, in the case of the prison service, it is not the prison service that finds the homes, is it? It is the probation service. The prison service has that extra layer to do that work for it.

Q333 Mrs James: In every prison there is a care and rehabilitation team. It is that team’s duty and responsibility to liaise with the prisoner if, for example, they have long-term health issues. I think that many members of the public would be surprised, but we know that, if we can rehome people successfully, there is a greater chance that they will not reoffend. If we translate that to what you are saying, and if we rehomed ex-service people successfully in the beginning, we could head off many of the problems that you have identified.

Hazel Hunt: Yes, exactly.

Mrs James: There are many people with that experience in the prison service who liaise with people outside the prison service.

Q334 Chair: This is not a discussion; it is a question-and-answer session so I will try to frame this as a question. Some people might say that there is a difference here in that most prisoners who are released, by definition, had problems when they went into prison and are, generally speaking, released on licence, meaning that they are still technically prisoners when they go out, whereas, although the people we have come across within the armed forces have naturally been the ones with problems, that should not stop us from realising that the vast majority of people who leave the armed forces have every right to sever their links with the MOD if they wish and, generally speaking, have no problems whatsoever integrating back into civilian life. Therefore, we are talking about a fairly small-we hope very small-proportion of those who are released experiencing problems. Is that a fair comment?

Hazel Hunt: Yes, but you have to take it back to previous conflicts. As the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and Veterans UK have been saying, they are getting people coming in as a result of serving in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. Although, technically, it is a small number for each conflict, you find that people are living longer these days, and you have people who are only just admitting that they have problems from 30 years ago. So, this really does need to be looked into sharpish so that we are not still going through the same circles in another 50 years’ time.

Chair: Did you have another question, Siân?

Mrs James: Yes, but I am not sure whether I should bring up the disabled facilities grant here.

Chair: Please do.

Q335 Mrs James: I am slightly concerned now that we have raised the housing issue. You mentioned in your documentation the administration of the disabled facilities grant. How successful do you think that has been, and are you confident that local authorities are fulfilling their obligations in this area?

Hazel Hunt: Not necessarily, because sometimes they do not know that these people exist. By their very nature, ex-servicemen and women are very proud people and have been taught to be very resilient in their own right. It is not just the old-age people who have pride and do not want to get help, but it is some of the younger ones too. They will battle on and try to do what they think is doing their best. We talked to a young soldier the other day from Merthyr Tydfil. He had to hit absolute rock bottom before he suddenly realised, ‘I am just not coping with this any more’. That is not the local authority’s technical fault; it is something that both sides need to be made fully aware of. The local health authorities and the local authorities themselves need to learn pretty fast the numbers that are coming out and the numbers that they should be expecting to see as needing help. As I say, it is all on record.

Q336 Geraint Davies: Your charity, of course, was founded in September 2009 when Richard was the two-hundredth person to die. Now, three years on, around 450 people have died.

Hazel Hunt: It is 435 today, because we lost two yesterday.

Q337 Geraint Davies: In that period of time, how much money have you raised for the foundation, and how does that compare with other charities in the same area?

Hazel Hunt: I think that we have raised approximately £150,000 in the last three years and a half. Obviously, we are a small charity and so, in relation to some of the bigger charities, such as SSAFA, Combat Stress and the British Legion, we are small change. Nonetheless, as I say to people, every penny literally does count.

Q338 Geraint Davies: Do you have a good relationship with the other charities?

Hazel Hunt: I have tried to engender good links with them. I spoke to John Francis, the national chairman of the British Legion, within the first year. He is a lovely man and I get on very well with him. I guess that, from that point of view of charities not being prissy and not being jealous of their own areas, we were in complete agreement: we must work together more.

Q339 Geraint Davies: Do you feel that you are doing something that they are not doing to fill the gap? What is the gap that you are filling?

Hazel Hunt: They are simple things. With the bigger charities-the more established charities-you find that, once a veteran has been to them once and had help, they are somewhat loath to help them a second time unless it is with something that is of dire need. You will find them saying, ‘Haven’t you got this sorted yet? Why can’t you get that from other places?’. I love the fact that Help for Heroes does these capital builds, which is absolutely brilliant. Some of the bigger charities have got themselves involved in that and are, therefore, into the big projects, but I think that they are, perhaps, missing out on the individuals a little these days. I am afraid that there is a little bit of that going on.

Q340 Geraint Davies: Do you feel that there are too many charities and that some of them should be merged, or do you feel that having a number of different charities with a different focus is better?

Hazel Hunt: To be honest, I think that different charities with a different focus is better because, once these charities get over a certain size-and this happens in all walks of life and in all corporations-the bigger they get, the more they tend to lose sight of their grass roots. If you speak to some of the grass-roots officers from some of the other charities, they will tell you, ‘It is all very well our big bods going to committee meetings and so forth, and patting themselves on the back, saying, "Aren’t we doing well? We have raised this much money this year", but they do not see the lads coming through the door each day with all their individual problems’. I have the transcript of the meeting that I should have attended back in May but was unable to, and I saw that some senior officers made one or two comments that, sorry, they would not have gotten away with if I had been sat next to them.

Q341 Geraint Davies: As MPs, we see individuals, like you do, on a weekly basis, so we know that what you are saying is very pertinent. Just to give us some more flavour, can you give us some examples of the way in which you spend your money?

Hazel Hunt: Yes. We help bereaved families immediately a Welsh serviceman, or someone who has been attached to the Welsh regiments, is killed. They get a £500 bereavement cheque. From personal experience, I know what it is like. That first month is like you are walking through glue.

Q342 Geraint Davies: So, just to make sure that I have got this right, you give £500 to any Welsh soldier who dies, is that right?

Hazel Hunt: Yes, their families get a £500 grant from us straight away. That is for the families to do whatever is necessary. It might be used to pay a bill, because I do not know whether you are aware, but as soon as a serviceman dies, his wage stops. If you are married and living in married quarters, you still have that military family around you. Some regiments are better than others, but the Royal Welsh in particular is extremely good and looks after its families very well. However, an awful lot of them are not in married quarters. Their families are back home, in the Valleys and so on, and, quite often, they feel as if a huge void has opened up, and they do not know what to do.

Q343 Chair: Can I just come in there? When you say that the wage is stopped immediately-

Hazel Hunt: Yes. The MOD puts a stop to it on the hour that that soldier is killed.

Q344 Chair: What about some sort of compensation?

Hazel Hunt: That takes weeks, if not months, to come to fruition.

Q345 Chair: So, people have problems paying their bills.

Hazel Hunt: Yes, some people do. The fact is that, if they have children, those children still have to go on living and still have to be fed and clothed. As I said, some regiments are extremely good, but I know of other regiments that are appalling. These people are stuck in the middle with nowhere to go.

Q346 Geraint Davies: So, do you feel that there is a case to be made for benchmarking the best regiments, given that you say that some are doing well and some are not?

Hazel Hunt: Yes.

Geraint Davies: So, you should spot what is best and make sure that everybody does that?

Hazel Hunt: Yes.

Q347 Geraint Davies: You have made a lot of excellent points today. In your view, what are the top three issues that would improve the provision of services to veterans in Wales? If you had to have a top three of things that should change, what would they be?

Hazel Hunt: About a year ago, I heard a little whisper about St Athan, and that, originally, in that whole area down there, there was going to be a brand-new tri-service training centre. However, that has now had to go by the by, and there were whispers about it perhaps being sold off. It has an excellent small meds centre, as well as barracks and offices. A tremendous amount of infrastructure is already there. That would be an excellent place for a battle back centre for Wales. As I said, a lot of the infrastructure is there, and you could do the same as the other battle back centres. You could get Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion in, with the MOD, and ask what would be needed to build on it. You would then have a centre to which the NHS could send its staff-its physiotherapists, nurses and doctors-to learn hands-on how the military does things. They could then take that excellence back to their hospitals, meaning that that invaluable experience would be rolled out. So, that would be my No. 1.

My No. 2 would be on teaching for servicemen within their service life, before any of them leave, so that they get to know what they have to do financially, how to budget, and who to go to to ask about housing. If they go to their GP, because they are having problems with post-traumatic stress disorder, they need to know that they can have confidence that that GP knows what they are talking about. Soldiers have told me of how they have gone, at their wits’ end, to see their GP and how they have had their GP in tears after telling them their story. They are then thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, you’re the healthcare worker-you’re supposed to be helping me, not me patting you on the shoulder’. So, that would be my second priority.

The other thing is that these lads often have amazing skills. They are not just soldiers. They are not just taught how to shoot a mortar, a rifle or whatever. They have a lot of other skills. I know at least two of my friends’ sons who are coming out of the army through the redundancies. One was in the Royal Military Police, and he has been offered a job already by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police because he has these amazingly good skills that they are looking for. Another is a paramedic, and the Australian Army has apparently offered him something like £120,000 to go to Australia. We are throwing these people away, and it is such a waste of time and resources. A lot of the lads do not want to leave the country, but some of them have no choice if they want a decent life for themselves and their families. I think that it is appalling that we are throwing all that talent away.

Q348 Geraint Davies: So, in other words, do you think that there should be some sort of systematic skills audit, in an attempt to help to lead people into new jobs-

Hazel Hunt: Yes, there should be proper careers training.

Q349 Geraint Davies: You have already described a situation in which young men arrive in the army without any financial skills or civilian skills, then they get those skills and they are suddenly dumped-

Hazel Hunt: Yes, they are dumped in the middle of nowhere, quite often.

Q350 Geraint Davies: Their skills are then eroded and lost, and it is a wasted resource.

Hazel Hunt: Yes, because they feel that nobody rates them. They really feel as though they have just been tossed to one side.

Chair: On that note, thank you both very much indeed for coming along today. I have to draw a line under it there, because the next panel members are all here, but we are very grateful.

Hazel Hunt: Thank you for listening to us, and I hope that we can take it forward from here.

Chair: It has been very helpful.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Carl Sargeant AM, Minister for Local Government and Communities, Alyson Francis, Community Safety Division, Dr Sarah Watkins, Head of Mental Health and Vulnerable Groups Policy and Senior Medical Officer, Welsh Government, Naomi Alleyne, Director, Equalities and Social Justice, Welsh Local Government Association, and Councillor Brendan Toomey, Leader of Merthyr County Borough Council and WLGA Spokesperson for Community Safety, Policing and Fire, Welsh Local Government Association, gave evidence.

Chair: We will just wait until everyone has the right nameplates, although many of us are quite well known to each other. I begin by thanking everybody on the panel, the Minister, Councillor Toomey, Ms Francis and Ms Alleyne, if I have pronounced that correctly, for coming along today. I ask Karen Lumley to begin the questions.

Q351 Karen Lumley: Good morning. I wonder whether you could start, Minister, by just explaining your role as Minister with responsibility for the armed forces in the Welsh Government.

Carl Sargeant: Okay, thank you, Karen. Good morning, Chair and committee, I am delighted to be with you this morning. My role is as the co-ordinating Minister for the link between Westminster and the Welsh Government and the relationships of the devolved and non-devolved functions. It is an interesting concept to try to build up relationships, because we have to work better together to ensure for the people whom we represent, wherever they are in the UK, that there is a consequence to living in Wales-and we hope that that will be a positive consequence by working better together. So, I am the co-ordinating Minister. I hold the ring, but individual Ministers still hold their ministerial responsibilities.

Q352 Karen Lumley: You obviously have a lot of responsibilities as Minister. How much time do you think you spend on this part of your role?

Carl Sargeant: As I said, I have a co-ordinating role. Time wise, I have a team of people working behind the scenes, so work is constantly ongoing. This is not unique to my role. To demonstrate that, I am also the Minister with responsibility for tackling poverty across Government, but, again, that is a co-ordinating role, and Ministers have their own individual portfolio roles within that. That is why I am just the main co-ordinator for this.

Q353 Karen Lumley: So, how much time do you think you spend on this?

Carl Sargeant: I cannot give you a defined number of hours or days for this element. I have regular meetings with representatives of the armed forces and charities across Wales. I also co-ordinate the expert advisory group for the Welsh Government, which involves two meetings a year, but there is a lot of work behind the scenes for my team. So, the direct involvement is several meetings a year, and, aside from that, I generally meet with charities and the armed forces through my regular work as Minister for local government.

Q354 Karen Lumley: Finally, what would you say your current priorities are as Minister for the armed forces?

Carl Sargeant: You will be aware that we have launched our package of support for the armed forces in Wales, and my priority is to ensure that we deliver that. I challenge other Ministers with responsibility within that document to ensure that there is delivery on that. It is about checks and balances, really, to ensure that, when we say that we are going to do something, we do it-and if we are not, to question why not. So, I co-ordinate the document, but I am very keen to ensure that Ministers deliver on that, too.

Q355 Chair: How often do you meet with your counterparts in Westminster and Scotland?

Carl Sargeant: In relation to the armed forces, rarely.

Q356 Chair: When you say ‘rarely’, have you met with them?

Carl Sargeant: I have correspondence with them. Have I met with them? No.

Q357 Chair: Do you want to meet with them, or is it not something that you think is worth doing?

Carl Sargeant: I am not averse to it. It is not that there is a particular reason why I have not met them. We have been able to deal with matters through correspondence and through the excellent links that we have with the MOD and the armed forces’ representatives here in Wales, so we have a route-map through to Ministers. I would not suggest that there is a block to our meeting, but I am not sure there has been a specific need to meet directly.

Q358 Chair: Are you aware of different priorities or different ways of approaching veterans’ issues in England, Wales and Scotland, and is there anything that stands out as good practice-or bad practice, in fact-in any of those nations?

Carl Sargeant: Of course, given the devolved nature of the Governments, there are different offers. The ability to offer something different in Wales is something that we should be very proud of. However-and I need to be sensitive in how I put this-there is a financial consequence to doing things differently. Where the UK Government’s covenant document is in place, we have tried to work alongside that with our package of support in Wales to give additional benefits, where we can, to the armed forces’ families and veterans in Wales. So, yes, we have done things differently in Wales, and some of those are to do with health actions, which are co-ordinated in all Welsh local health boards. I believe that that is unique to Wales. So, there are significant differences, but we look to complement what is happening in the UK as opposed to being divisive in some of the things that we might do.

Chair: We should not really pick on you, Minister. If anyone else wants to answer any of these-

Carl Sargeant: Thank goodness for that, Chair. [Laughter.]

Q359 Chair: We would never do that. I do not know whether anyone else wanted to come in on that.

Dr Watkins: Shall I talk about some of the things for which we feel that Wales has been in the vanguard, in health terms? We piloted a veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder service in Cardiff, and undertook an evidence-based evaluation of that. Then, the previous Minister for health and our current one funded a national roll-out of that. So, Wales was the first, and continues to be the only one, to have a national service with specialist community services for veterans. That goes a bit wider than post-traumatic stress disorder, as it takes a holistic view of the needs of veterans who are having problems. It gives advice, working with health professionals and the third sector, with organisations such as the Royal British Legion and others, including Combat Stress, which has seven specialist nurses, one for each area in Wales. We will signpost people to things like citizens advice bureaux, and help and support them to access housing and other areas. We are certainly very proud of our all-Wales health and wellbeing service for veterans, and would say that it is certainly something where we are well in the vanguard.

Carl Sargeant: If I may, Chair, I would just add that what we have been able to establish in Wales-something that I skipped over quite lightly-is the expert group to advise me and my team. That is of great advantage. It is very local. We have all three services, family federations and the forces third sector organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, around the table to look at examples of what is happening in Wales and how we can build on that. So, we are very close to the front in terms of service provision. They advise us well of any gaps in the service, and we try to react very quickly on the information that we receive as a Government, as do the partners in local government, in terms of public service delivery.

Chair: Thank you very much. Do feel free to come in, councillor, through me, on any of the questions, because local government is very important to all of this.

Q360 Jonathan Edwards: Minister, you have already touched upon the package of support that the Welsh Government provides that was launched in November. Can you give an update on its progress?

Carl Sargeant: We are certainly making progress on that, and there are some examples from the funding that we have applied to this of £485,000 into the health service areas. However, we will produce an update next month with the full detail, and I would be happy to supply the outcomes of that to the committee. We are confident that we are making strong headway with the package of support.

Q361 Jonathan Edwards: You have also said that you are responsible for co-ordination across Welsh Government departments. How does that work in practice? Do you chair joint meetings?

Carl Sargeant: As I said, we have the expert group, and I have correspondence, and formal and informal discussions, with the armed forces and the third sector organisations and family federations that offer support in Wales. If any action points arise from that, then I speak directly or write to the relevant Minister to deal with any queries that we may have. So, there is an audit trail of actions.

Q362 Jonathan Edwards: In evidence, we heard about some concern about unresolved issues to do with the responsibility for the provision of healthcare for veterans. Who do you believe has the focus for responsibility for healthcare? Is it the UK Government, the Welsh Government or the third sector?

Carl Sargeant: We have to take this forward in partnership. There are functions that are devolved to us for which we are responsible, and health actions for veterans are a function within Wales. However, we have to be very aware that when armed forces personnel are released into civilian life, they have to be fully prepared for the transition. That is something on which we have to work on together; you cannot just take somebody out of the services and put them on civvy street and expect everything to be fine. I think that there is an onus on the non-devolved functions of this to feed into the devolved areas when people arrive in Wales. So, it is a bit of a mixed bag, really; we have the responsibility around health, but it is also about preparedness and the support that people should have when they leave the armed forces.

Q363 Jonathan Edwards: Do you think that it would help if there was somebody with that defined responsibility? We agree with the points that you have made about rehabilitation, as it were.

Carl Sargeant: I have brought in an adviser from the health team to help me with some of the health questions that you may have, but the Minister for health has responsibility for actions in Wales. Do I think that there should be stronger co-ordination from the UK in terms of exit plans and strategies post leaving? I think that what we as elected Members see is that people present to constituency surgeries who sometimes feel outside the loop and outside the system. I think that it would be useful for somebody to co-ordinate the exit plan for the longer term, if people require that, in order to be able to support armed forces veterans several years down the line.

Q364 Chair: Do you want to come in on that point, Councillor Toomey, and on the issue of housing for veterans? That is something that would be partly the responsibility of local authorities, if not wholly.

Brendan Toomey: Sure. As the Minister has said, on a practical basis, local authorities are currently putting together their local covenants, following the UK directive last November. The difficulty, certainly at this point in time, is that there appears to be a lack of communication on the ground between the various agencies and armed forces personnel. We have to find ways, and we are looking at ways, of communicating this-the packages that are available, the help that is available in relation to housing, education, health, and so on. That is very much work in progress at the moment.

Q365 Chair: Would you recommend, Councillor Toomey, that local authorities allow people to apply for housing within a local authority area, if they need it, before they have moved in? For example, should service personnel serving somewhere in Salisbury, for example, who are originally from Wales be allowed to apply to a local authority in the area that they originally come from to get council or social housing?

Brendan Toomey: Do you mean when they finally leave?

Chair: When they have made the decision to leave, but before they have left. I have come across cases where they have been refused permission to get on a list because they are not living in the area. However, to be fair to Torfaen County Borough Council, which I have dealt with, when it understood the circumstances, it was very helpful indeed, much to its credit. However, I felt that that does not always happen and that my intervention may have made a difference there.

Brendan Toomey: I would agree with that particular comment. It is vital that whatever transition arrangements can be made prior to individuals leaving should be made and that as many planks as possible are put in place before they finally leave the service. It is vital, because it gives a certain peace of mind: there is no doubt whatsoever that they can leave and can be reintegrated into civilian life without too many difficulties. Housing is the most important thing of all.

Chair: Education would be another-being able to apply for a school before moving into an area, because you know you are leaving.

Q366 Mrs James: We have all heard of these cases. No-one has come to me personally, but, on the front page of the local paper about a year ago, there was the story of an ex-serviceman and his daughter living in a car. I was not aware of the circumstances, and SSAFA did a lot of work with that young man and his daughter. He wanted to come back. He had spent his life in the army, he had married within the army, the marriage had broken up and he wanted to come back to the place where he felt his community was. He had no links with the region, as he had broken his links with it, but surely we must understand that, often, people need to go to places with which they may not have had a long association because of their service. Do you think that local authorities are aware of this or are they making their officers aware that, sometimes, there has to be a little bit of leeway for someone who may want to go on the housing list?

Brendan Toomey: There is a far greater awareness now, because of the connection or affinity with people of my generation and, indeed, those who are a lot younger. There is greater awareness now than there was some time ago. As a local councillor in Merthyr Tydfil, I have had several pieces of casework dealing with ex-servicemen and, once again, it all comes down to a lack of awareness and a lack of communication about what can be offered. I think that it is fair to say that most, if not all, local authorities are looking to help service personnel when they leave and are trying to reintegrate into civilian life.

Q367 Mrs James: We heard from an earlier witness that there seems to be a mismatch with regard to the information that the young person, or the ex-serviceman, gets at the point when they leave the army; there is a breakdown in communication and it then ends. We have heard evidence that suggests that there was a day’s advice session on what to do after life in the army. We take this for granted for our prisoners and yet we do not seem to think that we need to put it in place for our servicemen.

Brendan Toomey: May I just answer that particular point, Chair? You are right, and it is because of awareness. There are a lot of serving personnel-certainly from the Valleys areas-who are on the front line; they are the foot soldiers, if you like. There is a certain pride there that they do not come forward and say that they have an issue with this and a problem with that. I keep bleating on about communication, but that is the vital link between it all. Local authorities are now trying to ask the questions themselves, ‘Are you ex-forces or are you currently serving?’ However, that needs to be rolled out far more widely. There is far more awareness now. Having dealt with several of these personnel after they have left the service, they have only come to me through third-party involvement-people I know have said to me that there is a problem with housing or whatever for this person, and it is through that third party that I have become involved, rather than through those individuals coming to me at first hand.

Carl Sargeant: There are several issues in support of this process. Earlier on, Jonathan Edwards mentioned the exit programme and how we support veterans leaving the service. It is often the case that there is a direction as to what they need to do and how they access support. However, there is sometimes a void at the end or at the beginning with regard to some of that information. On things that will be significant in future, we are currently consulting on a housing White Paper, and there are opportunities for armed forces veterans’ issues to be included in that, therefore taking some of the more chance decisions or advice elements and putting them into statute so that we can offer reassurance around housing issues.

In addition, Brendan Toomey mentioned advice services and access to them; these are critical. I suppose that the only thing worse than not having advice is having bad advice. I have been looking at the model in Scotland and what is happening there with regard to advice services. Following this meeting, I have a meeting of the expert group and will be seeking volunteers to form a task and finish group to look at providing a one-stop-shop service throughout Wales with regard to the opportunities for armed forces personnel as an early intervention so that they know where to go and that they will get quality advice. I am leading on a review of advice services in Wales, which is happening now. That all feeds in nicely to a package of support that we are seeking to offer in Wales.

Q368 Chair: I will ask a question that comes out of evidence given by the previous panel. I will paraphrase a little, but the suggestion was that prisoners and certain people who have arrived in this country get priority. If three single males aged, say, 22 all presented as homeless to a local authority-one an asylum seeker, one an ex-prisoner who has just been released from prison and one who has just left the armed forces-which one, if any, would have priority? I do not know the answer to that. Does anyone know the answer?

Carl Sargeant: Priorities are decided by each individual local authority.

Q369 Chair: So, each local authority could award different priority to the different categories?

Naomi Alleyne: Under the homelessness legislation, the veteran, or the person from the armed forces, would be in a priority group. The prisoners-

Q370 Chair: Over the prisoner and the asylum seeker?

Naomi Alleyne: It is the same, because they would get priority status and would join a list for temporary accommodation and longer-term accommodation.

Q371 Chair: So, they would all have the same priority?

Naomi Alleyne: No, the person from the armed forces would be part of a priority group, as would the prisoner, but the asylum seeker would be supported by the United Kingdom Border Agency, which is a different process, as part of seeking asylum.

Q372 Chair: They would, therefore, be housed via a different agency and would not be reliant on a local authority, would they?

Naomi Alleyne: Asylum seekers are housed via UKBA.

Q373 Chair: How often would they normally have to wait for housing?

Naomi Alleyne: That would depend on the status that they were given after their asylum claim was considered.

Q374 Chair: As asylum seekers, how long would it take them to be housed?

Naomi Alleyne: There is a contract that the UK Government has to house asylum seekers immediately in temporary accommodation.

Q375 Chair: So, they would get housing immediately, would they?

Naomi Alleyne: It is a different system that applies to them.

Q376 Chair: So, because they go via UKBA, they would immediately have access to housing as asylum seekers.

Naomi Alleyne: It is temporary accommodation, obviously, while the claim is considered. If an individual-you mentioned three individuals-was given refugee status, unless they had any vulnerabilities, they would not be there as a priority group, under homelessness.

Q377 Chair: No, but as an asylum seeker they would have immediate access to housing via the UK Border Agency.

Naomi Alleyne: It is a different system, operated in a different way.

Q378 Geraint Davies: On this point, the previous witness suggested that 20% of the armed forces are Welsh. Obviously, that is not a hard figure, but if it is the case that 20% of war veterans and the armed services are Welsh, and if the Welsh Government consolidated its priority for armed service veterans to have housing rights, do you think that there is a strong case to go back to the UK Government for a greater share of the cake, because presumably, that would be a disproportionate demand on your resources?

Carl Sargeant: Of course, if it is additional money, I would be foolish not to say ‘yes, we should have some more’. [Laughter.] However, I think that we have to dig under those statistics; it might be that 20% of the armed forces are Welsh, but it does not mean that they all live in Wales.

Q379 Geraint Davies: I am just referring to the previous suggestion that there are people from Wales who want to come back to Wales, and if the Government is sympathetic to that, it needs the resources to match the numbers.

Carl Sargeant: Yes, of course; I would concur with that.

Q380 Nia Griffith: Ms Watkins and you, Minister, have referred to links with the MOD. Can you tell us how successful you feel the links between the MOD and the NHS in Wales have been to date and whether there is further work to be done?

Carl Sargeant: I will refer to Ms Watkins regarding the health element of that, if I may, Chair.

Dr Watkins: Yes. We have a four-country MOD partnership board, which meets periodically, and we have reasonably good links with the MOD. So, we have always had contact within the MOD and have worked constructively with it on things like improving medical records on discharge from the army, in particular; that has been a perennial problem. The MOD is now taking that very seriously and has a commitment that, by 2013, there will be routine transfer of medical records in the way that there would be if you changed GPs. Normally, your records would just go with you, but that has been more of a problem for people being discharged from the army. So, that is one of the priorities that we have been working on with the MOD. Those meetings rotate around the UK, and we last hosted one in October 2011.

Q381 Nia Griffith: Can you confirm that you are anticipating an electronic system for medical records up-and-running from the MOD early in 2013?

Dr Watkins: I do not think that we have a time in 2013. We would be delighted to receive those records as soon as practical, but the direction is via the MOD to the NHS, whether in Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland.

Q382 Nia Griffith: Do you know what is blocking this with the MOD? Why has it not been facilitated sooner?

Dr Watkins: I do not know, but it has certainly been identified. Probably, IT has improved and things are gradually smoothing as IT improves across the UK, but that is a question for the MOD.

Carl Sargeant: I want to expand on what Geraint and Nia said about the relationship between the MOD and Wales, specifically on health. I want to flag up to the committee that decisions made by the MOD are sometimes unsighted by the Welsh Government and they have a consequence, whether those are for health or other services. We were not fully aware of the situation when the announcements around the armed forces’ restructuring took place. The consequences were announced to us after the announcement. Therefore, preparedness for services, which we may have to have in the future, must start then. We have no link to predetermination. Of course, confidential conversations go on between Governments on many issues, dealing with a variety of things. We were not sighted in this, which was perhaps, unfortunate, because we have to prepare in Wales for a decision that has been made elsewhere for potentially 25% of the armed forces. There are things that could certainly do with tidying up in the communication element-it is not acceptable to say ‘We can’t tell you about this because we can’t’, when there is a consequence for someone else.

Q383 Nia Griffith: You mentioned the care pathways and, obviously, there are positive steps there. Yet, at the same time, the Royal British Legion has been saying that there are communications between the MOD and England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and not Wales, which is implying that Wales was not doing the same sort of thing. So, what exactly is the situation? Are there things that we are doing better in Wales than other parts of the UK, or are there things that we still need to learn from other parts of the UK? Can you clarify a little? We are getting some mixed messages.

Carl Sargeant: One example on which we believe that we are leading in Wales is the mental health care pathway. I will ask Sarah to explain the detail and how that has been rolled out throughout Wales, and how we see that there are huge benefits to that as well.

Dr Watkins: England is looking to develop a care pathway, but Wales has already done so. I can send you a copy of that care pathway. We are fortunate in Wales in having some significant international experts in post-traumatic stress disorder, but we are pushing ahead with things like every local health board having a veterans champion. I wrote in August to ask LHBs for views following a Health Inspectorate Wales review of healthcare, with regard to setting up networks within each LHB, and I am meeting with them shortly. The National Leadership and Innovation Agency for Healthcare is working on a prisoners/veterans pathway, so we are being proactive in Wales. We do share that across the four nations, so we would not see it as just working with England. We see it as something on which we work with the MOD and the four nations.

Q384 Nia Griffith: You mentioned mental health specifically. What about other aspects, such as seriously injured personnel?

Dr Watkins: Dr Andrew Murrison MP, as you are aware, has produced some reports, which inform Welsh policy; for example, there has been a report about prosthetics. The Welsh Government has, in principle, signed up. Prosthetics is a very advanced branch, so now soldiers who have been very seriously injured may even have a range of different limbs for different tasks, because they are often young men-they may have swimming limbs and so on. There is a commitment to replace those and keep ahead of the field, specifically for veterans. Veterans have priority compared with other people with the same level of clinical need across all countries, so there is priority for veterans within health.

Carl Sargeant: It might be useful, Chair, if, at some point, we shared with you the differences in waiting times for veterans and civilian service users in terms of mental health. That is because the pathways have advanced some of the waiting times and support for veterans.

Q385 Geraint Davies: I want to ask Sarah Watkins about the awareness among GPs of the priority treatment for veterans, which is something that has been raised by the British Medical Association. I wondered whether we were ahead of the curve in Wales on this.

Dr Watkins: Communication and getting people to be aware of people’s needs is a major issue, on which we have to keep working. For example, I wrote to LHBs in August so that they would remind their GPs. We have issued several chief medical officer updates reminding all doctors in Wales-not just GPs, but also dermatologists and dentists-of the priority of healthcare for veterans. Also, it is about the voluntary sector supporting veterans in keeping them aware of their rights; it works both ways. It is about that awareness-raising, so we regularly write out and have done so a number of times. We have also issued formal guidance, as they have in England and Scotland, to make people aware of that.

Q386 Geraint Davies: That is helpful. Previous witnesses also mentioned that post-traumatic stress as a result of being in battle is quite different from post-traumatic stress as a result of a motorcycle accident or just having a baby or something like that and that some civilian GPs are really not properly equipped to cope with something like this, because it requires more specialist support from military psychiatrists, for example.

Dr Watkins: Our all-Wales veterans health and wellbeing service is led by an ex-military psychiatrist. In fact, the lead nurse is also ex-military. We are certainly fully aware of that issue. That is why we have specialist services with specialists in treating (PTSD). I have to say, speaking as a psychiatrist, that, if you were a train driver, for example, and someone jumped in front of your train, you might suffer PTSD. It is an extremely significant condition, and I do not think that it is helpful to compare. It depends on the individual and people should always be treated according to clinical need. We have done some specific development work on training for GPs in Wales. In England, they got the Royal College of General Practitioners to prepare a module for training. The problem with that was that you had to be a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners to access it. So, we have developed our own training in Wales, which is accessible to all professionals. Indeed, you may choose to look at it yourselves. It is on our postgraduate deanery website. All professionals can access that in an open way. So, there is formal training for GPs, and we have informed GPs that that training is available so that they can upskill themselves if a veteran presents with those symptoms.

Q387 Geraint Davies: That is excellent. We were reminded earlier this morning that, in September 2009, the two hundredth soldier was killed in Afghanistan and that that figure is now up to 435. There is an index of the number of people coming in with other problems. There is also the fact that 20% of service personnel are from Wales. Given all that and the pioneering work that you are doing, how much does it cost to provide this all-Wales veterans health and wellbeing service? Is there scope for future demand? Carl might want to come in on this: the MOD has a duty of care, so do we need a greater slice of the cake to deal with a growing problem? It is not just the legacy; there are people dying today. Sarah Watkins, perhaps you would like to start, and then Carl might have something to add on the capacity, whether we could do more and how much more we want. It was also suggested by a previous charitable contributor that, ideally, we would have a facility at St Athan, for example. What are your thoughts about the capacity and the need?

Dr Watkins: There is certainly a need there, as demonstrated by all of the services. However, we have to consider that what we are trying to do by establishing clinical networks in Wales is ensure that there is no duplication and that people are working together. I mentioned the seven nurses who Combat Stress fund through charitable funding, and we give some money to Combat Stress in addition to the money that we put into the service. The Royal British Legion puts a lot of work in, as does SSAFA. Therefore, we would say that we are looking to make every penny count within our limited budget, because we get Welsh block money and that is limited. As the funding currently stands, we are looking to help networks, to ensure that there is no duplication, that everyone gets the best value that they can from the money invested and that we get more from what we put in now. We need to see the whole pot, not just NHS, local government and so on. We need to see what additionality we can achieve by working together in Wales.

Q388 Geraint Davies: I will ask the Minister to come back on that in a moment but, with regard to whether there is a centre or support in the community, Wales is quite a sparsely populated place, so how do you find that balance?

Dr Watkins: Healthcare Inspectorate Wales has recommended that we consider a residential facility, not just for PTSD, but to deal with wider needs. We are going to convene a task and finish group to look at that. We have approached a distinguished independent person, who we hope will accept the appointment as chair and who has a significant background in the military and in health. We are going to consider that recommendation. The NICE guidance is clear that people with PTSD should broadly be treated in community services. If they have a concurrent mental illness, they will need in-patient care, according to clinical need, but that would normally be provided by our general secondary mental health services. The NICE guidance is pretty clear on that. However, we are keeping an open mind. It may be wider than just PTSD; there is also the question of how you get that esprit de corps that you get if you are in the armed forces. I know that there may be other areas of funding outside of the NHS that may be considering that, which is possibly a way forward. All that remains in the future, but we will be pulling together a task and finish group.

Carl Sargeant: This is a really important point, but the work that you are doing is also very important to try to understand the real situation and the consequences of that. At any time during conflict I would imagine that there is an increase in the need for service, which may be the immediate clinical medical care that the MOD facilitates, but the long-term impacts of that and the consequences for individuals are all different. Once they exit the armed forces and reside in Wales, there are issues that may have to be picked up by the devolved Government. We would struggle to understand the long-term actions that we will have to put in place because of the consequences of a conflict; or, in addition to that, the changes in the way that the armed forces are working. People are now starting to exit the armed forces because of the redundancy element. It is clear to me because I come from an armed forces family, so I am very familiar with many of the issues that we are discussing this morning. When armed forces personnel are within that armed forces family, it is very different from civilian life. Regardless of PTSD, or otherwise, we know that when you leave that family and are placed in civilian life, it can become very different.

One of the very simple issues of change, of good health, is good housing. People leaving the armed forces for whatever reason-because they have been injured or made redundant-has a consequence in Wales. We do not yet fully understand what those numbers will be in order to provide the simple things, such as good-quality housing for armed forces personnel, which will keep them in a very good state of mind and wellbeing. If they do not have housing, that can cause huge problems to trigger PTSD or other things. So, there is a big picture here that I do not think that we fully understand about the model and the process of where you start in the armed forces and whatever that life journey is within it to the end game. The point that Jonathan raised earlier about someone monitoring that, should people want it, is really important.

Q389 Karen Lumley: Following on from that, one of the best visits that we have done in this inquiry was to Edinburgh where we saw how the Scottish Government provided Veterans First Point. I think that it is leading the way in how veterans are looked after in Scotland. I think that England, Wales and Northern Ireland could learn a lot from it. Is that something in your housing White Paper that you will be considering?

Carl Sargeant: The White Paper is not mine; it belongs to the Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage. However, the White Paper will be seeking advice from interested parties on what the future should hold. There will be elements in the paper that are specific to the veterans of our armed forces and their families. As I said earlier, I will follow on from this meeting with the expert group and I will be asking it to lead on a piece of work that I hope will bring back more information, following the task and finish element of this, about how we can co-ordinate all the quality services between the Welsh Government, local authorities and charities et cetera, and how armed forces personnel and their families can access these points. We find that a lot of the problems can be resolved if we can signpost people in the right direction. Following this meeting, we will work with the expert group to establish a review into that process.

Q390 Karen Lumley: May I suggest that somebody from your group goes to see this place in Edinburgh? I think that it was inspirational. There is no point reinventing a wheel that does not need to be reinvented.

Carl Sargeant: Yes, certainly.

Q391 Karen Lumley: We have heard evidence that veterans find it difficult to know where to turn for help and advice. Is that a fair comment?

Carl Sargeant: Yes. That is my very short answer to that question.

Chair: We like short answers.

Carl Sargeant: What is really important is that we do not forget veterans and families. I have done a little bit of work with my team in Wales on that. We visited serving armed forces personnel, because while the MOD will look after its service personnel, and broadly their families, there are challenges for serving armed forces families within Wales-and I suspect that it is the same in the rest of the UK-which also need to be addressed. Dentistry is an example of some of the things that we are looking at in Wales. We recently visited a base where the armed forces personnel were given excellent dental treatment by the MOD, but their families found it challenging to get on to a dental list because they were only there for a short period of time. The lists were full but they were told that if they waited they could get on to the list. This is a bit controversial, but I will say it: I think that there are some equality issues in terms of serving personnel versus serving families. I think that they are some of the key issues that we should address too.

Q392 Karen Lumley: In local government terms, is there a big variation in how different local governments treat our veterans up and down Wales?

Brendan Toomey: I am not sure whether I am best placed to answer that question. The point that I want to make is this: you mentioned Veterans First Point in Edinburgh, and although I am not aware of anything in Wales that replicates that, the one thing that we can and should be doing, particularly around our covenants-and, again, this is a piece of work that is ongoing-is for local authorities to have single points of contact in order to signpost veterans to the various places that they need to be. While that approach is not identical to the model in Scotland, it is certainly a significant step forward.

Q393 Jonathan Edwards: I have a question for Councillor Toomey and Naomi. We have heard concerns about the operation of the disabled facilities grant and in particular the delay in receiving funding for home adaptations. Do you acknowledge that there are problems in various local authorities in Wales?

Brendan Toomey: There are huge variations in the time that it takes local authorities to roll out their grants. I am pleased to say that my authority was top of the tree this year, which is a pleasing statistic. However, there are many reasons why there are variations in that, and Naomi has some of those statistics for you.

Naomi Alleyne: As Councillor Toomey said, there is some variation, but it is an issue that we have been looking at in detail recently. There is a need to get behind some of the statistics to look at some of the individual experiences that people have, but some of the feedback that we have had is that it depends on what sort of adaptation is required, as lots of authorities operate a rapid response system. So, if it is a small adaptation, under £2,000, then that can be done relatively quickly and without too much problem. It is some of the bigger adaptations that are taking longer. There can be a range of reasons for that. There is a limited amount of occupational therapists who can do the assessments in an appropriate time frame, which slows down the process. In some instances, the building work will not be contracted from the local authority; the funding is provided to the individual and then they will contract that work with builders.

So, it is an area that we are looking at in great detail. There has been a lot of improvement over the last few years. It is an area that local authorities have dealt with. However, there is a longer term concern that the demands for DFGs is increasing. So, for example, in Carmarthenshire, there has been an increase in demand since 2005, and in Swansea that demand has gone up by 20% over the last three years. There are limited budgets, but we need to look at that prioritisation and that awareness. Although DFGs are means tested, there are no priority groups in the same way as there are around homelessness. The prioritisation will be around the need for that adaptation. It is difficult, but it is something that we are improving. However, when you hear individual stories where there has been a long delay or it has taken a long period of time, you need to look at those and learn lessons from them so that we can do better in the future.

Q394 Jonathan Edwards: How would the WLGA intervene to smooth out some of those variations?

Naomi Alleyne: Each local authority runs its own schemes, but the WLGA has put out good practice case studies. We discuss this regularly with our cabinet members for housing, because the indicator, especially when it goes past that year process, is a real concern. It is important for that individual family, but it also has a knock-on effect on other services, so if we can ensure that people can be supported to live independently in their own homes, as the Minister said earlier, that will have a knock-on effect on people’s wellbeing. We are meeting with the Commissioner for Older People in Wales’s office this afternoon, when we will discuss this, and it is an issue on which we have put out best practice. We will also partake of the review that the Minister for housing has launched as part of discussions on the housing White Paper.

Q395 Jonathan Edwards: Minister, how much funding has been allocated under the DFG scheme and are you concerned that local authorities in Wales are not implementing Welsh Government policies in this field?

Carl Sargeant: I think that £35 million is being spent on the DFG. With my local government hat on and my overarching responsibility for improving public services, is the variance in DFG support and implementation acceptable? No. Notwithstanding that response, part of the issue is around funding. We have £2.1 billion less in Wales and there is a consequence: it has an effect on public services. We cannot hide behind that. However, what we can do is work with local government colleagues, because there are several mechanisms in Wales to drive improvement forward. Outcome agreements is one of them, where we suggest that there is a financial disincentive to local authorities that have challenges in certain areas and do not apply improvement. So, if DFG is one of the areas in which they should be improving, if they improve, they get paid for it, but if they do not, they do not. It is as simple as that. However, that comes as a bloc. My team will look at that with local authorities and the WLGA to drive that agenda forward.

I think that we have to-and I am doing this more broadly with public service delivery-look at who delivers these services and where, whether they are regional, national or local services. The WLGA in turn might look at it and say, ‘We have really good practice in Merthyr; it is top of the tree, and Brendan and his team should be congratulated for that’, but where there are poorer levels of services, it should ask why, and maybe Merthyr should deliver the services for them. We cannot afford to run public services 22 times. That is why the collaboration agenda is out there. We need to look at who delivers the best services, why and whether we can roll that out. That is a broader discussion about public services that includes this.

Q396 Chair: Following on, on the same issue about the consistency of delivery across local authority areas, do any of you see an inconsistency in the way in which housing is allocated? I have asked this in a similar way previously, but if there are inconsistencies, can the WLGA work as a body to try to iron those out as well?

Carl Sargeant: There is always a problem, Chair, when you give discretion to a body, and we have 22 of them in Wales, that they will make their own decisions at the appropriate time, and, of course, they are in different places. Some are in housing ownership, some have transferred stock, some have more stock than others do-it is about where you are. It is a very complicated picture in terms of local authorities and their ability to decide who should be priority listed. It would help-I am hopeful that the White Paper will do this-to have some statutory provision around this, saying ‘This is what you are expected to do’ as opposed to having the choice element. However, there are consequences to that. When we tell local authorities that this is what they should do, there is often a financial consequence as well, and it goes back to the issue that Geraint Davies mentioned earlier, about whether we fully understand what the implications of decisions made elsewhere are to Wales in the public service arena. I do not think that we do, because I do not think that we are engaged enough in that process to understand future modelling.

Q397 Chair: To go back to my previous point, do you think that local authorities are able to house people as quickly as, say, the UK Border Agency?

Carl Sargeant: I cannot answer that question. I do not know.

Q398 Chair: What do you think, Ms Alleyne?

Naomi Alleyne: First, the Welsh Government published a code of guidance on allocations for local authorities in August, earlier this year, so they are revising their allocation policies. However, as the Minister stated, there are local variations in housing tenure and housing availability that can impact on that. All authorities would follow the code of guidance, which does state that additional points can be given to those who are leaving the armed forces for the purposes of allocating housing, but as for how that works in practice, and how many points may be given, there will be variation.

The comparison with the process for asylum seekers is not easy, because it is driven by different legislation. Obviously, there is legislation from the Welsh Government on the allocation of housing, and from the UK Government on its immigration and asylum policy.

Q399 Chair: Would it be fair, though, to summarise it by saying that anyone presenting as an asylum seeker would immediately get housing via UKBA? They would be housed immediately, would they not?

Naomi Alleyne: There is a process to go through, but the UK Government has a contract with private providers on the provision of housing.

Q400 Chair: How long would a single male normally have to wait?

Naomi Alleyne: If it were a claim for asylum, they would probably have housing immediately.

Q401 Chair: ‘Immediately’-is that within a few days?

Naomi Alleyne: Yes, that is part of the support that is provided for asylum seekers.

Q402 Geraint Davies: Just as a clarification on this point, am I right to say that housing for asylum seekers, which is not provided by local government from its housing stock is, by its very nature, temporary while that person is being assessed, and if they are not given asylum, they are then required to leave the country? In contrast, people coming out of the armed services requiring housing are given permanent housing for the rest of their lives by the local authority. That is the difference, and that is why this comparison is one of apples with pears.

Carl Sargeant: You could similarly relate your argument to the example of people fleeing from domestic abuse in Wales. It is a very different situation.

Q403 Nia Griffith: I turn to the Welsh Local Government Association’s representative now. We have read about the community covenant. Could you tell us a little bit about the purpose of that and what it is intended to do? Why is it that only five local authorities have signed up so far? Is it just not known about, or what?

Brendan Toomey: The purpose of the covenant is to roll out the package of measures at a local level following the guidance from the national Government, and indeed the meeting that the WLGA had back in February. Five signed up to it fairly quickly, and I have their names here somewhere. Just bear with me a minute. I think that they are Anglesey, Newport-

Naomi Alleyne: Anglesey, Newport, Powys, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan have already signed theirs.

Karen Lumley: And Swansea.

Naomi Alleyne: Yes, and Swansea. That is more recent.

Brendan Toomey: There are other authorities in which that particular piece of work is ongoing, in draft form, for many. The process started very quickly, and there was good engagement in February, so I am told, although I was not in post at that particular time. Various organisations and agencies engaged in the process. I think that the process did slow down due to changes of administration in Wales on 3 May, but that process is now starting to accelerate again, and we are hopeful that another seven or eight authorities will have completed their covenants by the end of this year, and other authorities will be coming in on the back of that, so it is an ongoing process.

Carl Sargeant: Could I respond to that, Chair? I do not think that it was intentional, but the question was framed in a way that suggested that only five in Wales had signed up since February. I think that actually nearly 16 have signed up since February, which is two thirds of local authorities across Wales. We should be extremely proud of that, and we should compare those figures for Wales with those for England. If two thirds of the local authorities covering Wales are nearly signed up in several months, the question should be turned on its head: why are the others in England not doing it?

Chair: That is a very good point. Well said, if I may say so.

Q404 Geraint Davies: May I ask about the role of charities, particularly Wales-specific ones? I think that you have touched on this already, but how are they involved in policy development? How do you see their role, and do you think that there are too many charities?

Carl Sargeant: There are two points to make. First of all, you will be aware that the charities element of this is a non-devolved function and is therefore regulated at Westminster. To answer your question more broadly, however, are there too many charities? Probably not, as they all seek to do good in their work and actions, and I am sure that there is an awful lot of goodwill for the work that they do. Do I have concerns? Yes. On the broader issue, I think that we should review the way in which charities operate in the UK and in Wales. That is, what is the kitemark regulation for a charity? Who delivers what? There are organisations that seek specific treatment or a support mechanism that may work for an individual-and I fully understand why they would, and there is nothing wrong with that; you should pursue that if you believe it to be right-but that is sometimes outside the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance or is not regulated.

So, what sort of worries me is how we can ensure that sometimes vulnerable individuals, veterans and armed forces personnel and their families, or perhaps just those who are seeking additional support are signposted in the right direction so that they do not tread the wrong path. How do we regulate the quality of that service provision? I will not name individual charities, but I think that, currently, there are many whose intention is to do a good job but which do not always have the ability to deliver.

Q405 Geraint Davies: Say, for instance, that there is a very small charity delivering a specialist service in relation to, I do not know, post-traumatic stress disorder or something. Are you saying that that might not always be appropriate?

Carl Sargeant: It is horses for courses, is it not? As I said earlier, almost all the charities are set up with good intentions. However, the issue is the regulation and the effectiveness of charities. We have an awful lot of people putting an awful lot of their own money and public money into charities, and the headline is sometimes different from what is actually delivered, and I think that there is sometimes very little understanding of what charities do. That is why I am saying that I think that there is an opportunity for us-by which I mean the collective ‘us’, namely you-to look at which charities are delivering which services, and which you could give the thumbs up to. The Royal British Legion does tremendous work. It is well known, well recognised and it delivers. There are others on the circuit for which that may not quite be the case, but they receive equally as much money. We need to test that system.

Q406 Geraint Davies: When I asked the representative of the Richard Hunt Foundation, which is one of the charities involved, which three things she would like to see changed, she said that the ideals for her would be: a specialist facility at St Athan to deliver specialist care to veterans; teaching veterans budgetary management and civilian life skills, because a lot of them come in as young men and are just dumped back in society without knowing how to manage the finances of their lives; and an audit of the skills of people leaving the services, with a system for redeployment, so as to take hold of those skills and put them back into action, rather than letting them drift and go downhill. I know that this is a big area, but how do you respond to those key thoughts?

Carl Sargeant: I am very familiar with that charity and have met Mrs Hunt in the past.

The harsh fact is that the decisions that we make have to be based on evidence. I am not suggesting that her views are not; I am saying that if there is a requirement for a support facility in Wales, it should be appropriately reviewed by the task and finish group that we talked about earlier to see whether there is a need for it in Wales. If there is, we would then ask how we can prepare it and whether St Athan is the right place to deliver it. I do not know the response to that. Is it the role of the charity or of Government to make those decisions? Clearly, we will make the decision in that process.

On the other two elements of that, namely the educational base and the skills assessment, again, should charities be the ones doing that? Those two issues are key to the preparedness of individuals leaving the armed forces. Do we do things in Wales to support that mechanism? We look at the employment aspect when people leave the army. They have a huge variety of skills, are very reliable and are often very employable, but how do we get that communication through? I have written to local authorities and large private sector organisations to ask how they can support armed forces personnel to move forward, whether serving personnel as reservists or armed forces personnel who are exiting. Much more could be done, but it is just a question of where it should be placed.

Ms Francis: Just to add to that, one recent development in Wales is that 160 (Wales) Brigade with which we work closely, has employed a transition manager to pick up some of those last points that you made. It is also setting up a transition board, which we have been invited to sit on, and that is due to meet within the next month. So, some early work is beginning on that transition thinking, which we are closely involved with.

Chair: Thank you all very much. We have run slightly over time, but it has been an interesting session. We look forward to seeing our friend, the Minister, who talks to us more than any other Minister in the Welsh Government, in two weeks’ time, in Aberystwyth.

Carl Sargeant: I cannot wait. [Laughter.]

Prepared 8th February 2013