Welsh Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 131

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 30 October 2012

Members present:

David T. C. Davies (Chair)

Jonathan Edwards

Nia Griffith

Mr Mark Williams

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Mark Francois MP, Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, and Rear Admiral Simon Williams, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Personnel and Training), Ministry of Defence, gave evidence.

Q407 Chair: Good morning, Minister. It is very nice to see you and Rear-Admiral Williams. Thank you very much indeed for coming along this morning.

May I begin by asking you gentlemen about the number of veterans in Wales? We have heard various figures, and also suggestions that it is very hard to get any accurate guidance. One witness has told us that 20% of the armed forces are Welsh. I wondered what your thoughts were on this and whether you have accurate figures.

Mr Francois: May I begin, Mr Chairman, by formally introducing Rear Admiral Simon Williams? He is the Assistant Chief of Defence Staff for Personnel and Training.

With regard to your question, we think that around one in 10 adults in the UK are veterans. We define a veteran as someone who has served in the armed forces, whether regular or reserve, for at least a day. Of course, in many cases they will have served for far longer than that, but if they have served as regular or reserved for at least one day we categorise them as veterans. About one in 10 adults would qualify under that definition, and we believe the proportion in Wales is broadly similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is round about one in 10 adults.

Q408 Chair: Do you think that we could do more to better capture information about the number of veterans and also, perhaps, to keep track of them and make sure that they are okay after they have left the armed forces?

Mr Francois: We already have some figures on those people, and we are able to track them in various ways-for instance, via the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency. The SPVA pays pensions to former armed forces personnel, and it pays around 15,000 of those pensions to people in Wales every year. We also have records for those whom we pay via the armed forces compensation scheme, and the figure for Wales turns out to be about 7,000 or so people.

We are paying moneys for specific purposes to people at known addresses that are on our records, but we do not have an overall total veterans database for the 4.5 million or so veterans across the United Kingdom. The MOD has never had that. We have people’s original service records, but people can move on a number of times in their lives and we are not in a position to track that. There are some categories that we track very closely, particularly when we are making payments, but we do not have a complete overall veterans database. To set that up would be quite expensive and very labour-intensive.

Q409 Chair: We have also heard that veterans themselves are often quite reluctant to keep in touch with the MOD after they have left the armed forces. It that a fair comment?

Mr Francois: It varies between individuals. Some are very keen to keep in touch; others are less so. It is difficult to take a one-size-fits-all approach for that, but the information that you have been given is accurate. Admiral, do you want to add anything?

Rear Admiral Williams: I think that people have very different intentions on leaving the service. Some, of course, have only been in the service for a very short time, and their focus is on using the skills that they have gained in the Armed Services to do something else-often something very different. They are not generally the type of people who want to be tabbed all through their lives. They want to get on with it and do something else, and I think that that is perfectly legitimate.

Some of those who have been in the Services a little longer may have more affection and may perhaps have joined the clubs and associations, which have more of an explicit link with the armed services. Therefore, in terms of how we reach out and touch them as veterans, it is much easier. In the various charitable associations, such as the Royal Naval Association and the Army associations around the country, there is quite a lot of social support-and avenues, if you like, for any information that we would want to put out to veterans, as well, of course, as the web.

Q410 Jonathan Edwards: As the new veterans Minister, what are your priorities for the next year and for the remainder of this Government?

Mr Francois: One thing that I am determined to do is to try to give real effect to the armed forces covenant. As you know, Mr Edwards, we enshrined the key principles of the armed forces covenant in law last year. I am privileged, in that I was a member of the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee when I was the departmental Whip, so I was personally involved in the process.

You will also know that there are two key principles of the covenant. The first is the "no disadvantage" principle, which means that military personnel and their families should not suffer disadvantage in their everyday lives as a result of having served in the armed forces. The second is the principle of special treatment, where appropriate, particularly for the injured and bereaved. We have put those on the statute book, and what I want to achieve is to give them real form.

We are in the process of producing an armed forces covenant report. Under the Act, the Secretary of State is required to report to Parliament, on an annual basis, on the state of the armed forces covenant. I should make the point while I have the opportunity, Mr Chairman, that this is the beginning of a process. Obviously, this will happen on an annual basis. We will give a state-of-the-nation report on the armed forces covenant every year. We are working on the first one of those, and it will probably be published within the next few weeks. What we need to do every year is improve on that.

As I say, we need to give real examples. I shall offer one. It is pertinent to Wales, but also to the rest of the UK. It has been an issue for some time that, when servicemen move from one base to another, one of the challenges that they face is getting their kids into local schools. Let us say that they are moving in December, when the school year has begun in September. Previously, they often were not allowed to apply for a school place until they had actually moved to the new base. That meant that they ended up in a Catch-22 situation: when the whole unit moves in, all the parents are struggling to get their kids into local schools, which are sometimes already full or nearly full. In terms of quality of life and the education of their kids, this was a real problem.

The Welsh Government, to their credit, changed these arrangements a little while ago so that people were allowed to apply in advance from their current posting, and I understand that local authorities respect that. A number of English county councils, as local education authorities, have also adopted this practice. I think that, at Defence questions last week, I mentioned Oxfordshire, off the top of my head. At one level, that might seem a small thing, but if every time you have to move-which may be every two or three years-you have a challenge getting your kids into school, being able to apply for that school place in advance of moving materially affects your family’s quality of life. It is those sorts of very practical examples that we are looking to build on, so as to make it easier for servicemen and women and their families to enjoy a better quality of life and to make sure that they are not disadvantaged.

I am sorry if that was a slightly wordy answer, but this is an absolute priority for me in this job.

Q411 Jonathan Edwards: During the course of our inquiry we have received evidence indicating that your post should be within a different Department-in the Home Office or the Cabinet Office, for instance, rather than the MOD. How would you respond to that?

Mr Francois: I respond to that by saying, "It’s very kind of you, but I’ve only just turned up." It seems a bit early to move.

Some other nations do it differently. For instance, the United States has a separate Department of Veterans Affairs outside the US DOD. That is partly because a large part of what that Department does is to provide health care for veterans in the US. Remember, the US does not have a national health service akin to ours. The VA, as it is colloquially known in the US, spends a lot of its time and effort organising medical care for veterans. Here, we look after our people in service, and when they leave the service they transition mainly to the NHS, so we do not need a completely separate organisation to deal with that.

We believe that we can deal with veterans issues from within the Ministry of Defence. That said, as part of the covenant process we have established the Armed Forces Covenant Cabinet Sub-Committee, of which I am a member. It is chaired by Oliver Letwin, from the Cabinet Office, and it looks across government at veterans issues. That is how we attempt to deal with these cross-cutting issues. I believe that having the veterans Minister in the Ministry of Defence, certainly at the moment, is the right way to do it, but I am hoping to learn lessons from some of my counterparts in other countries, to see how they do it and whether there are lessons that we can import from their experience.

Q412 Jonathan Edwards: Looking at the relationship between the UK Government and the devolved Governments, we were surprised to learn that your predecessor had not met the Welsh Government veterans Minister. Is that something that you seek to address?

Mr Francois: I hope to do so, because I have recently written to him. The person in the Scottish Government who has responsibility for these issues is Keith Brown MSP. He already had a meeting lined up with me when I came into post. We had to move that, at his request, but I hope to meet him shortly. Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Local Government and Communities in the Welsh Government, has responsibility for these issues. I wrote to him recently asking if we can have a meeting to go through some of these issues so that I can better understand his perspective.

Having read his biography, I see that he is an ex-Chief Whip in the Welsh Government. As I was a senior Whip in this Government, I hope that we can get on, ex-Whip to ex-Whip. That, in some way, might aid our discussions. I have tried to initiate that process. We have not yet got a date in the diary, but I hope that we can get together before Christmas.

Q413 Jonathan Edwards: The Welsh Minister told the Committee last week that the MOD did not keep the Welsh Government informed about decisions that would impact on Wales. How are you going to make sure that there is a better joined-up approach between Governments?

Mr Francois: I hope that, to some degree, we do that, but one of the best ways of addressing any concerns is for me to meet my opposite number. Hopefully, we can build some kind of rapport. A lot of Government is ultimately about the effectiveness of personal relationships-you all know that, as Members of Parliament-so, if I can meet Carl Sargeant, I can begin to build some rapport with him. If he has had concerns in the past, I hope that we can address them.

Q414 Mr Williams: I turn to the annual reports made under the Armed Forces Bill and the covenant. Obviously, one manifestation of the covenant is the community covenant and the development of community covenants across the country. First, how satisfied are you that local authorities are rising to the challenge? I know that there is some very good practice out there, but different approaches are being taken. I was at a meeting in my constituency last week, and we were drawing up preliminary plans for our community covenant. It struck me that there is no one model being adhered to.

How confident are you, given that local authorities have the flexibility and freedom to develop different approaches, that all the things that we care about-you mentioned transfer between schools and access to health care services-are going to be covered in those community covenants?

Mr Francois: There are a few points to be made. First, there is not one absolutely rigid template for the community covenant. The idea is to tailor it to local needs.

The second point is that, across the UK, over 200 local authorities have now signed up to a community covenant, and they are still coming in. We are very pleased about the rate of take-up. Within Wales, I understand that six authorities have signed a community covenant, and another six are quite close to signing a community covenant. It sounds to me as if you are quite closely involved in that, Mr Williams-and more power to your elbow. The remainder, I think, are considering it. To try to encourage people, I am just about to write, with the chairman of the LGA, to local authorities in England and Wales to thank those that have signed it and to encourage those that have not signed it to do so.

We believe that we are making good progress on this, including in Wales. Obviously, we would like to see as many local authorities as possible signing up as fast as possible. We will not have them all by Remembrance this year, but I hope that by Remembrance next year we will have the vast bulk of them.

Q415 Chair: We heard some evidence last week that, perfectly fairly, asylum seekers who come to this country are housed by UKBA because of a contract with the agency. However, veterans leaving the armed forces obviously have to apply for housing via local authorities and often find it much harder to get on the list. Do you agree that we ought to make sure that anyone leaving the armed forces should have as much right to housing as somebody who comes to Britain and claims asylum?

Mr Francois: The second principle of the community covenant is special treatment where appropriate. It is up to local authorities to decide that prioritisation, but clearly from an MOD perspective we would want to see our veterans being given the maximum possible consideration. A number of local authorities have established veterans champions, whose role is to make the case for special treatment for veterans within the local authority as a whole. Those that have signed a community covenant often, as their community covenants refer to housing, try to give some priority to ex-servicemen in housing allocation.

Q416 Chair: Would you accept that, as things stand, a single male presenting as an asylum seeker would be housed more quickly than a single male presenting as an ex-member of the armed forces?

Mr Francois: I am not sure that that would be true in every case.

Chair: It would be true in a lot of cases.

Mr Francois: I am not in any way trying to duck the question, Mr Chairman, but you might want to address it to a Home Office Minister, as in a sense they have direct responsibility for that. We have certain legal obligations, but to my mind our veterans deserve special treatment. It is not for me to take individual housing allocation decisions, but it is for me to say that local authorities should give real priority to people who have served their country in uniform.

Q417 Mr Williams: There is a pot of money available to support community covenant partnerships with the local community. What is the take-up so far?

Mr Francois: You are referring, Mr Williams, to something called the community covenant grant scheme. Basically, it allows local authorities to apply for grant funding for initiatives related to improving relationships between the armed forces and other elements of local society. Improving the playground at a garrison is one example; providing money to help refurbish a nursery is another. £30 million is available over a five-year period for that process.

The latest figures that I have show that around £5 million has been allocated so far. When I was at the Army Families Federation conference a little over a month ago, I announced the latest tranche of those initiatives; some are for relatively modest amounts, but some are worth tens of thousands of pounds. Of the £30 million available, £5 million has been allocated so far, and there is £25 million to go1.

Q418 Mr Williams: Turning back to the nature of the devolved settlement, are you aware of a different emphasis being put on different policy priorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or is there unanimity in the direction of travel? Is there a distinctive Welsh policy? I am loth to ask, but, if there were a scorecard showing how the devolved nations are doing, where would Wales feature?

Mr Francois: I think that Wales would do reasonably well, actually. Because of the nature of devolution, you are going to have some slight differences between the nations of the United Kingdom. Everybody does not march absolutely in lock step. However, in terms of the UK and the armed forces covenant, we have something called the covenant reference group, which is made up of military charities and others, and that advises the MOD on how we are doing on the implementation of the armed forces covenant.

The Welsh Government have signed up to a version of the covenant, in that they have given direction that they want to see its principles implemented. In Wales, there is what is called the expert group, which Carl Sargeant AM chairs, and that performs a role in advising the Welsh Government similar to that played by the covenant reference group in advising the UK Government. The Welsh Government have made progress on a number of these issues, and I have given an example with regard to education. Wales is not doing too badly in that regard compared with the others. However, clearly we all need to do better, and we all need to make a good effort, because we are talking about very special people and their families. Admiral, do you want to add anything?

Rear Admiral Williams: There are differences, depending on whether you come under the Welsh devolved Government-but as the Minister said, the Welsh expert group is fully engaged in bottoming out those differences. There are things that you would get in certain areas of England-some areas, but not all-such as prioritised treatment by local housing authorities. That takes me back to the point raised by Mr Davies.

Some things like that are perhaps a little more developed in some places in England than they are in Wales. Another example might be, perhaps, the provision of IVF, which is very slightly different in Wales, in terms of the number of times you are allowed, from that in England. There are little areas of difference, but there is nothing that would make me disagree with the Minister’s point that Wales is doing pretty well.

Mr Francois: This is probably beyond the scope of this Committee, Mr Chairman, but I mention it for the sake of completeness. We have a particular challenge in Northern Ireland because some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities have a particular view of the covenant and what it represents. So in Northern Ireland this area is particularly sensitive and difficult; if we are talking about a scorecard we have to take that into account. If I were appearing before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I would go into more detail. Overall, however, Wales is holding up pretty well.

Q419 Mr Williams: To conclude, education, health and housing are necessarily devolved matters for the Assembly, but you do not see that as an issue because of the initiatives that have been taken in Cardiff Bay and because of the collaboration between the two Governments?

Mr Francois: The community covenant, at ground level, is a mechanism for delivering a lot of these services. As you quite rightly say, it affects things such as housing. Health is obviously a devolved matter, so in a sense all the medical issues are devolved, along with their implementation, outside the armed forces. A lot of this is devolved stuff, and we have seen progress on a number of fronts in Wales, as indeed we have in other parts of the United Kingdom-the caveat about Northern Ireland already having been made.

Q420 Nia Griffith: Some veterans settle very well. We sometimes forget that when talking about the difficulties that others encounter.

Mr Francois: Yes.

Q421 Nia Griffith: Obviously, there have been criticisms of the amount of support given to veterans who perhaps fall through the net or who do not have so much of the wherewithal to resettle. Do you accept those criticisms? Do you think that there are things that could be improved in the way in which the MOD deals with resettlement?

Mr Francois: I am not going to sit here and pretend that we have got everything perfectly right, Ms Griffith. As I say, the covenant report is going to be an annual process, so we hope to show improvement year on year. With regard specifically to resettlement, all service leavers, regardless of rank, are entitled to some form of resettlement provision, consisting of time, money and training. What they get partly depends on their length of service. If you are an early service leaver, as we call it-that is, after less than four years-you will still get employment advice to help you to move into the civilian job market.

Q422 Nia Griffith: If I may interrupt you there, Minister, we have heard varying degrees of satisfaction with that in the evidence that we have taken. We have been to different places, including St Dunstan’s, and we have heard from a number of charities. The fact that those who have been in least long-those who leave earliest-have the least support raises the concern that some of them are among the ones who need the most support. Would you accept that perhaps more could be done for some of them?

Mr Francois: I should make the point that, if someone leaves the service because they have been wounded or injured, they get a complete resettlement package even if they have been in for only a short period. Again, that is the principle of special treatment for the injured or bereaved. Perhaps it would assist the Committee if I were to take you through the different levels of what is available, depending on the service. It might take me a minute or two.

Chair: Not in great detail.

Mr Francois: If you are an early service leaver, you still get some basic employment advice. We are conducting trials at the moment-the Admiral might want to give a bit more detail about them-on how we can improve that service. Even if you are an early service leaver you get some basic advice, and we are looking at how we can brush that up.

If you have been in for between four and six years, you get a more tailored job-finding service. If you have been in for over six years, you get a service provided by the career transition partnership-the CTP-and 92% of those who have been through that tell us that they have succeeded in becoming settled or gaining employment within six months of leaving. That figure increases to 97% after 12 months. Over half of those people have had two jobs. For those who are being advised by the career transition partnership, the outcomes are extremely encouraging. We know that we need to do better at the other end of the market, for the early service leavers, and that is why we have trials under way to see where we can lean further forward. Admiral, do you want to say a bit more about that?

Rear Admiral Williams: We also have a veterans welfare service, run by the SPVA, for people in Wales who are contactable through the web or by a helpline. If you have issues with your pension, or anything to do with your welfare provision, that kind of support is pretty widely available throughout Wales-and indeed, throughout the United Kingdom.

Q423 Nia Griffith: Is that well publicised and well known? Are we talking about that link being there after the veterans have left? We have got the impression from some people that they feel as if they are going off a cliff edge and there is zero contact after they have left.

Rear Admiral Williams: In terms of it being well publicised and well known, everybody leaving the service gets a full brief on what is available. It is there in any search engine; if you put in "veterans", it will come up. The provision is there, and I think it is clear. I can’t speak for those who have either forgotten about it or who perhaps somehow do not know about it.

Mr Francois: Everybody is made aware that the facility is available, but at the end of the day it is up to people whether they choose to use it. By the time that they have left the service, some have already made their own arrangements. Service people are quite capable: a lot of those who are leaving will already have a job sorted out before they go. They clearly do not need access to employment advice because they have already cracked the problem. As the admiral says, everybody is briefed before they go on what is available, and they can choose whether to take it up, depending on their individual circumstances.

For completeness, I should add that a number of charities also do very active work in this area. Some of them are long-standing and are very experienced in helping servicemen and ex-servicemen. One of the first things that I did in my job was go to a reception for one of the newer charities, called Soldier On! It was established by an ex-serviceman, and it helps to get jobs for ex-servicemen, particularly in areas like the hospitality sector, which is one of its strengths. It is getting quite good at finding job placements for people leaving the services.

There is what we provide, and there is also what is provided by the charitable sector. Then, on top, there are all the facilities that the Department for Work and Pensions or its equivalents can provide, which veterans are perfectly entitled to access as well. We try to provide a range of assistance.

Q424 Nia Griffith: Would you tell us a little about the families? It is obviously a big upheaval for a family to move out of service accommodation. What support is provided for them in the transition to civilian life?

Mr Francois: You are right to highlight families, because we cannot just look at servicemen and women. We have to look at their families, and one of the challenges that we have is that sometimes a serviceman or woman will leave the service because their family are unhappy. What happens sometimes is that the family mentally leaves the service, and the serviceman follows them some while afterwards. We need to look at the serviceman or woman and their family as a package and try to do the best for them in the round and not just for the service person.

We have already talked about housing in some detail. Education is clearly very important to families, and that is an issue that we are already addressing through an initiative with the help of the Welsh Government, to whom I also talk. We are looking at the issues that directly impact on families-and, as the admiral said, we have a welfare service that people can access even after they have left the forces. Clearly, they can use that to assist their families as well as themselves. It is not just for them but for their families, too. Admiral, do you have anything to add?

Rear Admiral Williams: Every service leaver also gets a full service leaver’s guide, which covers all manner of things, including elements of family advice. Those who have been in for six years plus get the full resettlement facility. They get advice on jobs and also advice on how your family financial arrangements need to change. It particularly looks at those who have not got a house and the fact that they have to think about different ways of looking after themselves. The wife is invited to come in for one of those discussion periods. Something like 35 days of retraining is available.

There is a fairly comprehensive package on offer if you have been in for six years and more. If you have been in for six years or less, the judgment is that there will be less need to retrain your family because your family will not have become institutionalised, if you like, within the armed services and have come to rely on armed services provision, so people are slightly more resilient. Our focus is obviously on those who have been in for longer than six years, and particularly on those who have done 10 years and beyond.

Mr Francois: Experience suggests that it is the people who have been in the service longer who are more likely to have a partner and to have settled down. If you are a young private who joined at the age of 18, and for whatever reason you are leaving at the age of 20 or 21, you may have a family by that stage or you may not. If you are a warrant officer and have been in for 20 years, you are more likely to have a family, perhaps, than if you had joined the Army just a few years ago. Clearly, we try to be realistic about how we tailor that support.

The key thing that I would like to get across to the Committee this morning, on this particular issue, is that we are seized of the fact that you need to look at the family as a package. You cannot just look at the serviceman or woman without also looking at the effect on the family of anything that you do. You have to try to look at it in the round. Hopefully, we are getting better at doing that, but there is still more that we need to do.

Q425 Nia Griffith: That is certainly very encouraging. May I explore one further issue? It is the suggestion by some in the charitable sector that some of this training could be done earlier. You mentioned financial management, for example, and the situation of a family who have to look at their housing options. Would some of that financial education be useful earlier, not as part of the resettlement process but as part of life skills training for service people?

Mr Francois: We already do a bit of that.

Rear Admiral Williams: Absolutely. Every serviceman now gets some degree of financial advice. We have to be very careful, because we in the service are not financial advisers, so we invite others who are appropriately qualified to come in for briefings. The basic tenets of running your finances are now covered all the way through training-right the way from basic training-and about every year or so, in every unit, financial advice is given. That used not to be the case, so I can easily see that many people who have spoken to you would not have had that provision and would think that it ought to start earlier.

There is now regular advice for servicemen throughout their careers. In terms of when the career transition starts, we say that it formally starts two years before you leave, so there is a graduated succession of briefings. For example, I have already started mine. Everybody who is potentially within two years of leaving the service is on that career transition pathway. That is all there, and it is very much better than ever it was.

Q426 Chair: Minister, you dealt earlier with the criticism that veterans do not know where to turn. I think that you said that they could simply Google "veterans" and up would come a lot of information. Is there an argument for having people at regional government level who can direct them to the right organisations? For example, we saw in Scotland what we thought was an example of very good practice with the Veterans First Point in Edinburgh. That is a one-stop shop for veterans that directs them on to whichever services they need, whether it is help with housing or mental health issues, or simply with finance or other things.

Mr Francois: There may be something in what you say, Mr Chairman. The Royal British Legion have an initiative on exactly this. They are working on a concept of establishing what you might call veterans advice centres around the country. In some ways, this is similar in concept to a sort of citizens advice bureau but providing bespoke advice for veterans. I should not say too much more, because it is a big thing for them and they are in the process of rolling it out.

Q427 Chair: Is it getting any Government support?

Mr Francois: We are talking to them about that now. I recently had a meeting with Chris Simpkins, the director-general of the Royal British Legion, and we spent quite a lot of time talking about this, as it is something that I am quite interested in. We are talking to them about how we can make this work most effectively, and they are looking to roll the network out around the country, not only in garrisons but in the large towns where a lot of servicemen originally come from. It will not just be in Colchester, Aldershot, Tidworth, Brecon and so on; it will be in other places too. I had best stop there, as they are quite proud of this and I do not want to steal their thunder. However, I will say that that is actively in work and I am taking a very close interest in it. Admiral, do you want to say anything about Edinburgh?

Rear Admiral Williams: This links into Mr Williams’s initial thought about whether there is an established template for the best way to do things. The United Kingdom, as a nation, is learning the best way to approach a lot of these issues. We are seeing a lot of good practice coming up, things that had not been planned by the MOD but by local authorities that thought, "This is how we are going to approach this."

I would not sit here and say that any of these initiatives are not worth looking at. As we get this community covenant built, with that Welsh expert group, already in Wales you have a group that will catalyse some of this best practice and let it flow back out. As that meets at the UK level, there is an opportunity to share some of that best practice. In terms of whether, at a local level, it might be a sensible thing to have somebody focusing a little more on the veterans issue, I cannot think that it would be bad.

Mr Francois: It would really help in the process, Mr Chairman-here I look to you and your colleagues-if we could get all the local authorities in Wales to sign up to the community covenant. It would be lovely to be able to sit here and say that we have coverage across Wales with the community covenant. That in itself would be very helpful in providing more support.

Q428 Chair: I would not like to jump the gun and suggest what recommendations might appear in our report, but we take note of what you say.

I want to turn this around a bit. I do this very carefully, but, having served in the TA myself, and having, unfortunately, witnessed a violent off-duty offence there, I wonder whether you agree that we also have to be careful to differentiate between those who leave the forces having undergone very traumatic experiences and those who leave after a short while because of extremely unacceptable behaviour, and that we cannot be seen to treat these different groups of people in the same way. It is a very small minority, but there is a minority in any section of society who misbehave, and we need to be mindful of that when we talk about the sort of help that we want to give our overwhelmingly very brave service personnel.

Mr Francois: We clearly have a duty to maintain service discipline and good conduct in the armed forces. As you yourself have served, Mr Chairman, I probably do not need to amplify the point.

When ex-servicemen, particularly those who have served in operational theatres, are found to have "issues"-perhaps things like anger management, and stuff that may trace back to experiences that they had on operations-one would hope that when a court is taking decisions on an offence it would take that into account. Any sentencing decision rightly remains a matter for the court and the judge, but it makes sense if, in a situation such as the one to which you refer, a judge is made aware that the person accused of the offence is a veteran, and also of the kind of service that that person may have been through. That may or may not be something over which the judge wishes to exercise discretion and take into account.

Q429 Mr Williams: I turn to health care and access to health care services. Are you satisfied that there are robust enough arrangements between the Ministry of Defence and the NHS in Wales?

Mr Francois: Yes, there probably are. If I may, I shall start from the top downwards. The MOD has a close working relationship with the UK Departments of Health at strategic and working levels. There is a thing called a high level partnership board, co-chaired by the Surgeon-General from the Ministry of Defence and Sir Andrew Cash from the Department of Health. It meets three times a year to manage policy and strategic issues between the two Departments. The partnership board ensures that the MOD and the UK Health Departments, including representatives from the devolved Administrations, work together to improve health care for armed forces personnel during and after deployment, and that of their families and veterans. That board meets on a peripatetic basis.

In case the question popped up, I asked when it last met in Wales. It was in Cardiff in October 2011. The devolved Administrations are well tied into that mechanism, which is there specifically to promote co-operation between the MOD and Departments of Health across the UK. We believe that that mechanism works pretty well, but I shall not sit here and tell the Committee that there is nothing that we can do better. I am sure there are things that we could do better, but we have a pretty good working relationship.

Q430 Mr Williams: The relationship does seem to be good. We have heard the Welsh Government talk in terms of the development of a Wales-specific care pathway. Pathways already exist in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The question comes to mind: what is your perception of the reasons for the delay-although a lot of good stuff has been said subsequently-in the development of that pathway in Wales?

Mr Francois: The pathways are broadly similar across the different devolved Administrations and in England. There are some differences, but they are not major. We are attempting to develop and improve the pathways in all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. The Welsh way of doing it, if I may say so, is not radically different from how it is done in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Rear Admiral Williams: The transition protocol is the same basic protocol, but, as the Minister says, there are differences in how it is described in certain areas of the Welsh part of the national health service. However, in a material sense I do not see that we are talking of any clinical difference.

Q431 Mr Williams: What are the current issues around the transfer of service personnel medical records from the MOD to the NHS on discharge? In our various deliberations we have picked up some disquiet, to put it mildly, about how it has worked in the past. What are you doing to overcome those concerns?

Mr Francois: May I explain how it works now and then how it is going to change? Currently, when personnel leave the armed forces they are provided with a summary of their military medical records and instructions on how their civilian general practitioner can request their full military medical records. The system at the moment therefore relies on the individual passing that information on to their GP on registration. They have to say, "I’m a veteran, and if you need any of my military medical records there’s a way of getting hold of them." If the individual does not pass that information on to the GP and does not inform the GP that they are a veteran, that information will not be recorded on their NHS medical records and they might not be treated accordingly. That is the position today.

We are moving to a system-this should be fully up and running in Wales in the autumn of 2013-whereby, on discharge, an individual’s NHS records will automatically have a letter included with it informing the civilian GP that the person is a veteran and giving details of how the GP can obtain the individual’s military medical records. This should prompt the GP to consider whether there is a case for priority treatment in line with clinical need, under the second principle of the covenant.

There is one further iteration. Within 12 months of that, there should be a further development that will allow for a summary of in-service care to be included with the NHS records. That would allow the receiving medical practitioner in the NHS in Wales to have a better understanding of the individual’s health needs, and it should also help to build awareness of the veteran community among GPs.

To summarise, currently the individual turns up, but they have to notify the GP that they are a veteran, and tell the GP how to get hold of their medical records. By autumn 2013 they will turn up with a letter that gives that information to the GP and identifies them as a veteran. By the end of 2014, they will have that plus a summary of their military medical records for their GP, and if the GP wants more information her or she can then inquire of the MOD.

Q432 Mr Williams: I am loth to ask this, because I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to electronic medical record sharing systems or any information sharing system-but has there been any serious deliberation on that from the MOD’s perspective?

Mr Francois: The MOD has a lot of experience with computer systems-some of it good. I shall bring the admiral in on this, because he has spent time on this. You can see, by the way that I have laid it out, that this is a phased approach. That is deliberate. We want to ensure that every bit of the system works before we move on to the next bit. Past experience suggests that trying to do it as a "big bang" is not necessarily the best way to approach it.

Chair: Before the Admiral comes in on this, I should explain why we are all fiddling with these iPads. It is not that we are being rude, but we have just gone over to a paperless system and we are coming to terms with it slowly.

Mr Francois: That works well-yes?

Chair: Well, we have had our failures, but we are getting there.

Rear Admiral Williams: The services have invested a significant amount in improving their own medical information and making that medical information talk to their personnel administration. That is where our investment has gone so far. It is clearly technically feasible to link any bit of IT to any other bit of IT. The issue here is the patient’s consent to the movement of records. That stymies things, because the patient has to take a positive role in the movement. We can generate a letter saying that you are a veteran so that your GP can ask you, but if you said, "No, I don’t want you to look at any of my records from the MOD", the GP could not do anything. There has to be that patient consent.

Q433 Mr Williams: I think that all the health boards in Wales now have a dedicated veterans champion. How satisfied are you that the message within health boards is getting through to health care workers, specifically about the needs of veterans to access medical services?

Mr Francois: The very fact that a number have appointed veterans champions suggests that the message is getting through. The fact that they have those people in post to do that shows at the very least that they are cognisant of the issue. Our view is that relations on this front are good, but, as the admiral says, we are constrained by the issue of consent. However, that is an issue for the health care services across the United Kingdom. We have to respect patients’ wishes, but within those constraints we are trying to do the best that we can to improve the system.

Rear Admiral Williams: They have an entire area of north Wales named after a military nurse, in Betsi Cadwaladr.

Q434 Jonathan Edwards: In your view, Minister, are mental health issues among veterans dealt with adequately in the different health services across the state?

Mr Francois: It is fair to say that some years ago there were issues with this, but we have got better. For example, all personnel who returned from operations had part of what is called their decompression package, which was often carried out in Cyprus, where they were winding down after operations. As part of that, they now all receive an initial mental health briefing. There was an issue because we were doing that only for regulars and not for mobilised reservists. There was a gap, but we have now addressed it. Everybody who comes back from operations now gets that mental health briefing. There is an additional programme called TRiM. That encourages guys to keep an eye on the other people in their unit, to see if anybody is showing symptoms of mental illness.

In a military community, that is a challenge. We train our people to be robust and hardy, and if you are a serviceman you have to be quite courageous to put your hand up, particularly among your peers, to say, "Do you know what? I’m having a bit of a problem with this." In some ways, the culture has historically been against that, but we are trying to change it. We are trying to say to servicemen and women, "Look, for your sake and that of your family, if you have one, if you are having difficulty with this, put your hand up and we’ll come and help you. If you were wounded, we’d come and help you. If you’ve been affected in this way, we’ll come and help you and it won’t count against you."

That message is getting through, and we encourage guys in units, and girls, to keep an eye on their partners, and if they have a problem, to go to their friend first and say, "Look, go and put your hand up." If that does not work, then they may tell someone in confidence that they are a bit worried about Harry and that he may need to have a word with someone. Again, that is an issue because people do not want to grass on their colleagues, so you have to try to address this in a very grown-up kind of way. I believe that we are getting better at that.

I shall shortly be going over to King’s college London-it is where I did my MA, so this is a good reason to visit my alma mater-to talk to Professor Simon Wessely, who is acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading experts on this whole issue, and on post-traumatic stress disorder, in order to get some briefing on how we might do even better on this area. We do a lot of work to pick up the symptoms initially. Part of the remaining challenge is what we should do if someone presents with symptoms some years down the line-perhaps if their behaviour begins to change. That is when things sometimes begin to come out, and we need to make sure that we are in a position to address the problem at that stage, not just initially.

Again, I am sorry that it was a slightly long-winded answer but I want to convince the Committee that we take the matter really seriously and that we are trying to get better at it. I know that the admiral wants to add something here.

Rear Admiral Williams: We in the military are very good at standard operating procedures, and this has become one of those. In my lifetime in the service, we have moved to a stage where if anything like this happens, if you in a traumatic situation-whether it be on a submarine alongside in the United Kingdom, where somebody gets shot in front of you, or out in Afghanistan-there is a standard thing that clicks in. You now see that senior warrant officers-people you really rely on-are all over this. They move quietly in and start getting it sorted. The culture has changed.

Mr Francois: The admiral is quite right. Senior NCOs have a critical role to play. They are very experienced service personnel. If, for example, a young private is beginning to have some issues with this, that is where the sergeant, or sergeant-major, comes in and says, "Private Atkins, let’s go and have a little chat. I think you need a bit of help here." The chain of command relies on senior NCOs’ experience, particularly in this area. That is fair comment.

Q435 Chair: It is probably quite different from the way things were 20 years ago.

Mr Francois: Forgive me, Chairman, if I smile at that thought, but I served in the TA at a similar time to you-and yes, it is fair comment to say that some things have changed.

Q436 Nia Griffith: Often related to mental health is the issue of alcohol abuse. What comment would you make about the alcohol culture in the services? Is there any attempt to develop any form of alcohol awareness? Do you think what actually happens while people are part of the services may later contribute to their potential problems?

Mr Francois: I do not think I shall be giving away the Trident codes if I say that servicemen have traditionally enjoyed a drink. In fact, the Royal Navy used to have a specific procedure for it.

Rear Admiral Williams: Indeed we did.

Mr Francois: We encourage our personnel to drink responsibly. When they are on operations, there are limits on the amount that they can drink in any given period. We do take the issue seriously. Again, we provide advice, and it is something that we have got better at.

Rear Admiral Williams: Every serviceman receives a drug and alcohol lecture. It used to be just about drugs; it is now about drugs and alcohol. Some pretty well- trained individuals take them through the pitfalls of drinking too much. We are changing the culture; there is no question about it. When I look at the way that young servicemen behave today it is clear that some high jinks still go on, but it is different. Things have changed and are changing.

Q437 Jonathan Edwards: The Committee obviously welcomes that change of culture. However, is it not the fact-you alluded to this at the end of your previous answer-that these issues tend to develop later, often after people have left the services and returned to civilian life? There was a very powerful documentary on the BBC last night about the tour of duty of Welsh Guards in Afghanistan and its aftermath. Many of those individuals were suffering with mental health issues following the tour and the heavy drinking and social problems that come with that.

In a lot of the evidence that we have heard during the inquiry, many witnesses have made a case for a specific Welsh rehabilitation centre. At the moment, these centres tend to be located around the barracks where troops were previously located. Obviously, for Welsh troops, that is outside our country. Do you see the case put forward by individuals and families that these services should be provided nearer to where troops relocate after leaving the services?

Mr Francois: May I answer the first point, which is important? You are quite right, Mr Edwards, that sometimes people can present with symptoms some years after they have left the service, so we have these procedures in place to catch it early. However, in a number of cases it may crop up some years later. That is one of the reasons why we are going to so much trouble to ensure that, when medical records are passed across, GPs are made aware when someone has been a veteran.

If some guy who left the forces some years ago, and who served in an operational theatre, suddenly starts behaving in a particular way, if the GP has at the top of his medical records that this guy was a veteran, if he is any kind of good doctor he will straight away start thinking at least that that could be a contributory factor, and perhaps during the consultation he will start asking the person about what it was like when they were on operations. Making NHS GPs and the primary care system aware of who has served and who has not is one way, hopefully, of beginning to identify and correctly diagnose those symptoms if they present themselves. That is why it is worth going to all this time and trouble.

With regard to the second part of your question, Mr Edwards, there is an Army recovery capability, a personnel recovery unit-one of 11 based around the UK-based in Brecon. We already have a system alongside the 160 (Wales) Brigade that can provide treatment and help for service personnel who are recovering, so there is already a facility in Wales that enables people to do this. You then have five additional personnel recovery centres around the UK. At the top of the chain you have Headley Court, which I am sure that you are all familiar with. I had the privilege of visiting it a few weeks ago, when His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales opened the new Jubilee complex there-that was £17 million of MOD money, if I may say so. We have also recently announced another £5 million to improve things like accommodation and catering at Headley Court-to refurbish the kitchens, and to improve the accommodation where the guys stay while they are being rehabilitated.

We have a phased approach and different levels of capability, depending on the injuries that a serviceman has sustained, but at the top of the shop is Headley Court. Servicemen can go there from whichever part of the United Kingdom they hail-and Gurkhas and Foreign and Commonwealth servicemen can go there as well. We provide that for them all, and it is world class.

Q438 Nia Griffith: Minister, you are obviously well aware of the contribution of the charitable sector.

Mr Francois: Yes.

Nia Griffith: Is there ever a time when the charitable sector is doing things that really ought to be done by the MOD?

Mr Francois: They add to what we can do. The state has no monopoly on good will. We believe that the MOD provides a good service, but there are some areas where the charities can supplement what we do.

There are over 1,000 registered military charities and a number of unregistered ones. To give a practical example, they include bodies such as the regimental association, which do not necessarily have to register with the Charity Commission. You have the obvious large ones-the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and so on-right down to some very specialist charities. Combat Stress deals particularly with issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress-as its name suggests. It does what it says on the tin. One that I met recently in my constituency is called Scotty’s Little Soldiers; it was named after Corporal Lee Scott, who was killed on operations. It raises money to help the children of bereaved servicemen.

There is a whole range of different charities, some large and some small, and they fill different niches. They sometimes can do things as well as we can or they can supplement what we do. As veterans Minister, would I rather have 1,000 charities helping our people? Yes, I would. Do they do a good job? Yes, they do. Do they sometimes overlap in what they do? A little, yes. Can we try to make that more efficient? Yes, hopefully we can.

Q439 Nia Griffith: Do you think that there is a way of rationalising it? It is terribly emotive, isn’t it, when somebody sets up a charity after a soldier has fallen in battle or whatever. It is terribly difficult to suggest amalgamating it with others, but is there not a case for better co-ordination of some sort?

Mr Francois: This is a very sensitive issue. Clearly, these charities are set up by people of good will who want to do the right thing. Such an organisation is a charity. They run it; we do not. We are not in a position to give them orders, nor should we be.

There are certain co-ordinating bodies. There is one called COBSEO, the Confederation of Service Charities, which sits at the top of the charitable sector. It is in the process of trying to get these charities into certain groupings-in fact it has already done that-including those that specialise in housing, medical matters, welfare and resettlement. It is beginning to improve co-ordination between charities. There is work under way on this. The MOD can try to encourage the process, but at the end of the day, because they are charities, they are not subject to military discipline and will do what they want to do. However, we are making progress.

I am sorry, but you can tell that this is a bit of a hot button for me. I was speaking at a welfare conference to quite a lot of charities and I was trying to think of an analogy to use. Mr Chairman, this may ring bells with you. I said that it was a bit like the principle of combined arms, where within a battle group all the different bits-the infantry, the cavalry, the gunners, the engineers-all work together to try to achieve the maximum possible effect. We need to do a bit more and introduce the principle of combined arms to the charitable sector. I hope that you follow my analogy. Admiral, you live with this almost day to day. Is there anything more that you dare say on this?

Rear Admiral Williams: COBSEO tries to bring together the big service charities. As the Minister said, there are over 1,000 registered charities and thousands of unregistered charities, such as Scotty’s. In terms of big muscle movements, we are trying to bring their activities together under COBSEO. I chair an executive steering group for that, and the main big charity members are represented on that board. We are trying to get some unanimity of purpose in this area.

In area specifics-the defence recovery pathway-we have talked about what a massive amount the MOD is doing to invest in our people if they are wounded, injured or sick. I also chair a defence recovery reference group that has on it Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and the other people who are most involved in parts of this activity. The co-ordination of who is going to do what is one of the key issues.

In terms of where we sit and whether it should all be Government-funded, the view that I would take, as a serviceman, is that it is almost the nation looking after us as we pass out of armed service employment on your behalf into the nation more generally. There are lots of areas of support that we get via the covenant and the like. We get some support from local government, but we also get support from the people at large in the form of charity. The feeling of servicemen going through all this, at least if they look at it from my perspective, is that it is an entirely positive and rather heart-warming activity.

Mr Francois: The admiral makes an important point. The covenant is for society to show its appreciation of our armed forces and their families. It is not just for the Government or local authorities. It is also for charities and ordinary individuals. One way that people can do that-they do it every year-is to buy a poppy. They are showing some respect to people who served so that we could be free, and they are generating money that can go into things such as veterans advice centres. The covenant is not purely a state-sponsored activity. It is something for all of society, from Government Ministers through to ordinary citizens. We all have a duty.

Q440 Nia Griffith: I wish to raise a couple of quick points. First, how do you incorporate UK-based charities and Wales-specific charities in policy making? Do you have any dialogue with them on policy?

Mr Francois: As I have said, at the UK level there is the covenant reference group that advises the UK Government on how best to honour the covenant. In Wales specifically, there is the expert group chaired by Carl Sargeant, which performs a specific role with regard to the Welsh Government. Is there anything more to say on the charitable side?

Rear Admiral Williams: In terms of the charitable sector, they all look to and feed into COBSEO as an umbrella body. When they want some national activity, they know that that is how it works. COBSEO simply exists as just that-a national umbrella body. As for Welsh charities that are big enough to play on that score, the Welsh components of the Royal British Legion are numerous and have a voice. All feed up through those channels.

I would not say that we sit down and look in a devolved sense at what is a Welsh issue or what is a Scottish issue, but we certainly get issues raised at that level that emanate from all over the United Kingdom.

Mr Francois: I am checking my notes, and I see that the commander of 160 (Wales) Brigade is a standing member of the expert group. They have an important role in telling the Welsh Government where they are doing well and where they need to do better, in the same way that the covenant reference group does for us-and there is interplay between the two bodies as well.

Q441 Nia Griffith: There may be a danger that some very small charities try to offer things that they are not really qualified to offer. Is there a case for any form of regulation? I am talking about stress or mental health issues. They may think that they can provide advice, but it may even be dangerous.

Mr Francois: There is a particular issue with regard to mental health. I am not a doctor or a medical practitioner, but there are a number of different theories and concepts about how best to address issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some people will form groupings or charities that want to do it in a particular way, which is not necessarily based on what one might call clinical best practice, so you have to be careful about how you look at that. It may be extremely well-meaning, but we need to be convinced that what those people are offering is in the best interests and welfare of our people and their families.

Q442 Nia Griffith: How do we do that? Is there a case for regulation?

Mr Francois: We take advice on clinical matters from Defence Medical Services and the Surgeon-General. We can also advise our personnel on whether we think a particular offering is a good idea or not. To that extent, yes, we become involved in the process.

When it comes to support for the armed forces among the population at the moment, there is the greatest bow-wave of good will that I personally can ever remember. That in itself is a wonderful thing, but it does throw up challenges like this along the way. At one level, it is a nice problem to have, but we have to have some care. What COBSEO does is provide us with some governance and reassurance about groupings that work under its heading-that they meet certain standards and have certain aims and objectives that we would welcome.

Rear Admiral Williams: If they are providing a medical service, they clearly have to accord with the relevant medical regulations; people cannot just go and practise all sorts of things off the cuff.

What most of the charities tend to do is put money into different forms of medical provision. You might find a charity wanting to buy a different type of prosthetic leg, for example. The charity itself will know nothing about prosthetic legs, but it will have listened to a serviceman who said, "I want that leg"-because we are all pretty good at that sort of thing-and it may support a different line from the one that the MOD may recommend. We try not to be blinkered about any of the activities going on. We try to keep an open mind, because our heart too is in trying to do the best we possibly can for these people. In my experience, charities are most often trying to fund other areas of medical support. As I say, if they went down the line of trying to provide it themselves, they would have to work under the national regulations for medical provision.

Q443 Chair: There is no doubt that most of these charities are doing good work. Do you share the concern that there are one or two that might simply set themselves up and stick the word "Veterans" or "Heroes" in their titles? I am absolutely not referring to Help for Heroes. One then wonders how much of the money is being used in the correct way. Is there an argument for some form of benchmarking, perhaps using COBSEO, so that that vast majority of legitimate organisations can be differentiated from what I suspect might be a fairly small handful of organisations that are less beneficial?

Mr Francois: As you quite rightly say, Mr Chairman, the vast majority of these people are people of good will who basically want to do the right thing. At the other end of the spectrum, there has recently been a case that achieved some media publicity, with three people who had claimed to be collecting money on behalf of veterans being arrested. I have to be careful what I say, as the case is still continuing, but the accusation is that they were pocketing the cash.

Q444 Chair: There have also been suggestions of extremist groups using such things as a front.

Mr Francois: I mentioned that to let you know that we are aware of the risk, but for the absolute avoidance of doubt, the overwhelming majority of people who come forward to form charities and to help are doing it for the right reasons, and they have great good will. Ultimately, depending on their size and turnover, charities can be regulated by the Charity Commission. However, there are certain financial thresholds that people have to cross.

Rear Admiral Williams: It is £5,000. If they are making more than £5,000 a year, they have to register with the Charity Commission, and they therefore come under all the regulations that govern charities. That is what we rely on. Many individuals set out to raise money with a badge or something like it, but, if they use MOD badging or anything to do with the armed forces in the official sense, there is an intellectual property right. It is ours and we can police it-and we do. We police the use of MOD logos and the like. If an individual sets up as a charity, just like any other charity in this country, there is little that one can do about it.

Mr Francois: From memory, there is a bit of a caveat regarding what are called unregistered service charities-things such as regimental associations. From memory, I believe that they can turn over up to £100,000 a year without having to be registered with the Charity Commission. It is very clear what those organisations are and what they are doing, but normally there is a £5,000 threshold. Partly, we are relying on the Charity Commission to do its job.

Chair: Thank you. If there are no further questions, I thank you both very much for coming along here today. I presume, Rear Admiral, that you have come some distance. We shall let you know when our report comes out. Thank you very much.

Mr Francois: Mr Chairman, from our point of view, may I thank you for giving us a fair ride? We look forward to receiving your report in due course, not least to any recommendations that you may or may not choose to make about the armed forces covenant.

Chair: Thank you.


[1] Some £5M has been allocated to Community Covenant Grant fund applications since the launch of the scheme in June 2011.  Of this some £1.7M was allocated in Financial Year 11/12 with the remainder being the £3.3M allocated in FY12/13 to date (leaving some £1.7M in the FY12/13 allocation). In accordance with normal public accounting procedures, money not spent in-year can not be carried forward to the following year; this means the £3.3M which was not allocated in FY11/12 reverted to the MO D accounts and is no longer available to the Community Covenant Grant Fund.  The Community Covenant Grant fund therefore has some £21.7M left to spend in its remaining three years; £1.7M left in FY12/13, £10M in FY13/14 and £10M in FY14/15.   

[1]

[1]

Prepared 8th February 2013