Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 30 January 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr David Anderson

Mr Joe Benton

Oliver Colvile

Lady Hermon

Kate Hoey

Jack Lopresti

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

Ian Paisley

David Simpson


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Chris Carson, Acting Chairman, and Iain Creswell, Local Authority Lead, Northern Ireland Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Mr Carson, Mr Cresswell, you are very welcome indeed. Sorry to keep you waiting; there was some business we had to complete before seeing you. Thank you for joining us today to help us with this inquiry. Could I ask you to introduce yourselves, tell us a little bit about what you do, and make any opening statements you wish? Please be fairly brief, if you could. Thank you.

Chris Carson: Thank you, Chairman. I am Chris Carson. I am the Acting Chairman of the Northern Ireland Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee. We have been taking an active role in trying to have the Armed Forces Covenant raised within Northern Ireland, in some shape or form.

Iain Creswell: Good afternoon, Chair. I am Iain Creswell. I am the lead on local authority liaison within the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee, and I am here to support the Acting Chair.

Chair: Thank you very much. These rooms are big, old and very lovely, but the acoustics are not great, so we might sometimes need to speak quite loudly, so everybody can hear.

Q2 Mr Anderson: Can I ask you, please, how many veterans you actually represent? What is the number?

Chris Carson: Within Northern Ireland it is estimated that we have over 100,000 exservicemen. The veterans community would be over 200,000.

Q3 Mr Anderson: How do you operate in identifying them? How do you keep them up to date on matters affecting them? Do you have a database? Do people have to be signed up? Do they come to you, or do you go looking for them? Do you link up with Government agencies to identify them? How do you work?

Chris Carson: In Northern Ireland we have no set-up source. We work on the applications for ex-service memberships and war pensions through the SPVA. We can get information for many war pensions-those that are on war pensions and those that are on the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. We can get all that type of information. However, there is no set organisation within Northern Ireland to come up with the figures.

Q4 Mr Anderson: So if there was a veteran who was not in receipt of war pension or any other benefit, you would not know that?

Chris Carson: Probably not.

Mr Anderson: There will obviously be quite a few of those.

Chris Carson: Yes, there will be a vast number.

Q5 Mr Anderson: How do you keep those you have knowledge of up to date in terms of legislation, or anything they need to know in terms of being looked after better than they are?

Chris Carson: If they are on any form of army pension whatsoever, they are kept up to date via the SPVA. Otherwise, they are not kept up to date.

Q6 Mr Anderson: Is this particular way you work any different from what would happen in England, Scotland or Wales?

Chris Carson: No, all the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees are basically working in the same manner

Q7 Oliver Colvile: Both the interim and the final report on the Armed Forces Covenant noted that there were problems in Northern Ireland. Would you like to give us an update on whereabouts you think that has now got to?

Chris Carson: Our own local politicians have failed to put any input into the interim report and the 2012 report, so we have no input into that. We are not represented on the body that looks after that, and I believe that really disadvantages the ex-service community within Northern Ireland.

Q8 Oliver Colvile: So what do you think should be put into it, if you had the opportunity to have a say?

Chris Carson: Because we do not have any political set-up within Northern Ireland to look after veterans’ affairs, there is nothing that they could really put into it.

Q9 Oliver Colvile: Do you think the system should be changed so that you do have a say?

Chris Carson: Yes, very much so.

Q10 Lady Hermon: Sorry, could I just ask something? Thank you, Mr Chairman; I know I am taking this question slightly out of the run of things. I do know that in fact in the Private Member’s Bill, though it was not successful, there was an effort by a local politician from Northern Ireland to make it a duty of the Executive to take part and give some input. Presumably, and correct me if I am wrong, you would like there to be a duty on a particular Executive Minister to give an input into the review of the enforcement of the Armed Forces Covenant?

Chris Carson: Yes. The simple answer, Lady Hermon, is yes, we would. The problem is that we have so many different organisations within Northern Ireland doing some fantastic work. They are working with individual politicians. There is no overarching umbrella with all these people to come together, and we cannot win this working as ex-service organisations, with one MLA here and one there. We need local government support, and it has to be total, or else it is not going to work.

Q11 Lady Hermon: Regarding the junior Ministers-and I do say and identify expressly the junior Ministers-in the Executive who have a responsibility for equality and human rights, have you had any formal or indeed informal engagement with either of those individuals?

Chris Carson: No, we have not, Lady Hermon. We have, as a committee, written to the First Minister on three separate occasions, only not to get any answer.

Lady Hermon: You have had no reply from the First Minister on three occasions?

Chris Carson: No reply on three separate occasions. The outgoing chairman of the committee had written on three separate occasions.

Q12 Lady Hermon: How recently would that have been?

Chris Carson: The last one would probably have been about eight months ago.

Chair: Quite a while ago.

Q13 Lady Hermon: How do you feel?

Chris Carson: Well, it is disappointing.

Q14 Ian Paisley: First of all, you are very, very welcome. It is good to see you here, and I know the good work that you do. I think we have exchanged correspondence with individuals in the past. It is great to see you here, and I hope we can maybe help. Could we go back to one of your earlier answers? You mentioned the actual numbers of ex-servicemen. Could you give us a wee bit of a clearer view on how many of those ex-servicemen would have been exclusive to serving in Ulster under Operation Banner? How many are ex-service from service both in Northern Ireland and abroad?

Chris Carson: From one regiment, without naming it-you will know-it is estimated that 58,000 went through that regiment.

Ian Paisley: 58,000-sorry?

Chris Carson: About 58,000 service personnel went through that regiment.

Ian Paisley: The Ulster Defence Regiment, yes.

Chris Carson: That is not counting all the regular units that were involved with Operation Banner, including the Royal Navy and the Air Force.

Iain Creswell: Could I maybe give you some more definitive figures?

Ian Paisley: Thank you.

Iain Creswell: Currently in Northern Ireland there are a total of 7,865 in receipt of either war pension, War Disablement Pension or indeed the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. Now, unfortunately the statistics that we get from the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency cannot break it down to what was specific to what regiment, or what branch of the armed forces, whether it be navy, air force or indeed home service regiments. We just do not have those figures to hand, and SPVA really tell us that it would be a mammoth task to try to do that. However, what I can tell you is there are almost 8,000 in receipt of either a pension or compensation in some shape, form or fashion.

Q15 Ian Paisley: That is very useful. I think it is good for the Committee to have that on the record, so that we know the figures and levels of service as well. I think the other figure is also important. I want also to go back to the answer you gave about the very disappointing responses you have had from the Executive, and the fact that you have written on three occasions, I think you said?

Chris Carson: Yes.

Ian Paisley: And you have received no response. Would you be able to furnish us with a copy of the letters? Would you feel happy to?

Chris Carson: I would be unsure of that, but I will ask the outgoing chairman whether he has kept them on file. If he has, I will get them to you.1

Q16 Ian Paisley: Thank you very much. If we do get that, that will be very, very useful. Do you feel any progress is being made on the issue at all, with the Northern Ireland Executive, or is it just at a standstill?

Chris Carson: There is no movement at all with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Q17 Ian Paisley: Do you have any contacts with the other departments of Government in Northern Ireland?

Chris Carson: No.

Ian Paisley: None at all?

Chris Carson: Except with the DHSS, where we have the Armed Forces Liaison Forum, which has taken care of the medical side of things. It is probably the only implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant that has been put into Northern Ireland under the radar and kept pretty quiet.

Q18 Ian Paisley: Do you find that is working to your satisfaction?

Chris Carson: Not to my satisfaction. I am a member of that forum. We are supposed to meet two to three times a year, and at the moment we are only meeting once a year. That is because the members are extremely busy; it is difficult to get everybody together at the same time. These meetings need to be arranged 18 months or two years in advance, and set in stone.

Q19 Ian Paisley: Who chairs that forum?

Chris Carson: Off the top of my head, the chair has been changed. Unfortunately I was unable to get to the last meeting. Again, I will let you know who that is.2

Q20 Ian Paisley: Is it a civil servant?

Chris Carson: No, it is somebody in the medical profession.

Q21 Ian Paisley: Without giving names, how many other people sit on the forum?

Chris Carson: On that forum, there are 38 (Irish) Brigade representatives, the Royal British Legion, us, Combat Stress-everybody who needs to be there is there.

Q22 Ian Paisley: You feel if it was functioning faster or more efficiently, you would get more activity, more success.

Chris Carson: I could not honestly say that, because I know that if we do have any medical problems with an individual, we can get movement on it fairly quickly. There is not really a problem with it.

Q23 David Simpson: Chris and Iain, you are very, very welcome. It is good to see you again, especially Chris; he and I have engaged on a number of occasions through different events for Help for Heroes and different things we have done in the constituency. I think the Committee today, Chris, will certainly acknowledge the frustration. We are only into the Committee a very short time here, but I certainly acknowledge the frustration that you are putting across from the lack of progress on all of this. I think that is evident. Ian has asked about the engagement with the Executive; there has been virtually none at all, and therefore it is a disappointment that three letters have been written, and no response. I think that is unacceptable. In relation to the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament, is there a contact with them through the UK as a whole? If there is, what sort of contact is there?

Chris Carson: I am unaware of whether there has been any contact between our own assembly and the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. I have been in touch with my counterparts in the other VA&PCs within their regions, and they are working closely with their governments, almost on a daily basis. Both of them have committees dealing with armed forces’ and veterans’ matters.

David Simpson: Within their assemblies?

Chris Carson: Within their assemblies.

Q24 Jack Lopresti: Welcome. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland said that he chaired a roundtable discussion last week with a number of armed forces charities to discuss how the Covenant is being implemented in Northern Ireland. Were you part of that roundtable discussion?

Chris Carson: I am going to pass that on to my colleague Iain, because he represented me at that meeting.

Jack Lopresti: How productive do you feel the meeting was, as far as establishing where you are and making progress in the future?

Iain Creswell: As you will appreciate, it is very early days, and that meeting was only called for last week, by Mike Penning MP. The thrust of that meeting was to get interested parties together to find out where there was commonality. In fact it was discovered that there is a good deal of care for veterans within Northern Ireland from the various charities and organisations charged with responsibility, and indeed there is some overlap within that. However, what I feel is missing now is overarching co-ordination, cooperation and governance. Because there is no governance of it, it seems that every organisation and every charity is doing their own thing, as it were. Whilst they are doing sterling work for veterans, I feel that if it was more co-ordinated and if there was political impetus in it-if the politicians were involved in that forum, and particularly the politicians from Northern Ireland-then yes, we would have some cohesive force to at least make a statement to the veterans out there. We feel that the veterans in Northern Ireland are disadvantaged compared with those in the rest of the UK, and particularly those from other devolved governments. All we are looking for is equality. We believe that whilst the Welsh and Scottish Administrations have made statements and have given their support to it, nothing has happened in Northern Ireland. Therefore the Armed Forces Covenant de facto does not exist within Northern Ireland.

Q25 Jack Lopresti: What you are saying is that it is not being implemented.

Iain Creswell: That is what we feel needs to happen. Certainly, that meeting last week called for more co-operation between the organisations. I still feel that it is early days, but we shall have to wait and see if any governance and co-operation comes out of that.

Q26 David Simpson: On that point then, you said that Reg Empey had called for a meeting.

Iain Creswell: No, sorry: the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Mike Penning.

David Simpson: Sorry, I thought you said Reg Empey, and that is what the Chairman thought.

Iain Creswell: It’s my accent.

Q27 David Simpson: That’s all right. Now, can you just clarify the rationale for that meeting again? What was the reason for it?

Iain Creswell: The subject for discussion was how well or how badly the Armed Forces Covenant was being applied in Northern Ireland to service personnel veterans and their families, and whether there were gaps in provision. However, I feel it stemmed from the debate here in Parliament on 22 November, when the issue was raised. In fact, from that this Committee has got together and had the impetus to hold this inquiry. I think that is partly because the Minister said that he was asked by the Prime Minister to go and set up this forum, and it is agreed that they will hold this forum twice a year. I think that was the rationale behind it. I would love to say that it has been the work of our committee that stimulated the debate and got things moving, and got things off the ground.

Q28 David Simpson: You would take the credit for that?

Iain Creswell: I would love to take the credit for that.

Ian Paisley: You think it was our debate that did it?

Iain Creswell: I don’t know whether it is the debate that did it, or whether it was us, but something has happened anyway.

Oliver Colvile: Mr Paisley wants the credit for it.

Q29 Lady Hermon: He is trying to extract a compliment; he gets plenty of them. Could I just take you back to a couple of things? It is a real pleasure to have the two of you here, and giving us evidence so openly and frankly. We do benefit from that. Can I ask you to reflect on the reply that you have just given? In fact, I was very struck by the words you used, and I have taken them down. You said, "The veterans in Northern Ireland are disadvantaged," and then there is a little bit, and then you said, "All we want is equality."

Chris Carson: Yes.

Lady Hermon: Would you clarify and elaborate on how you feel veterans are disadvantaged by living in Northern Ireland or having served in Northern Ireland? Am I putting you on the spot? Either of you could reply.

Chris Carson: That is right, because they do not have any political support. Within Wales and Scotland, local governments are paying out on various schemes to help and support veterans and their families, and service personnel and their families. Nothing like that, absolutely nothing like that, is happening in Northern Ireland. We have one scheme in Northern Ireland that benefits veterans-it is only the veterans who are in receipt of war pension-and that is the SmartPass travel pass. That is the only thing we have in Northern Ireland, and that happened-I am trying to think back-a good while ago now.

Lady Hermon: Yes, it is.

Chris Carson: It was a good number of years ago that that came into place. I think it was under Nigel Dodds. Was it Nigel?

Ian Paisley: It was 2001 I think.

Chris Carson: I cannot remember; it was so long ago. However, that is the only thing, and that again came in under the radar. In my other life I am a caseworker for the Royal British Legion; I am doing welfare work almost daily. I am seeing disabled ex-servicemen and women throughout Northern Ireland who are on war pensions and do not know about that scheme, so I always carry a few application forms in my pocket.

Q30 Lady Hermon: It is for them to take the initiative and to apply?

Chris Carson: Yes. We do all understand the problems that we have in Northern Ireland, and the attitude of "keep your head below the parapet or somebody will take a shot at it". If the ex-service community does not know about whatever we are trying to put in place for them, then it is going to be of no benefit for them.

Q31 Lady Hermon: Yes. Just for the benefit of the Committee, what additional schemes would be available to veterans? For example, you said there were many more in Scotland and Wales.

Iain Creswell: I can add to that, Lady Hermon, but I certainly do not want to bore the Committee with the statistics.

Lady Hermon: No, it is not boring.

Iain Creswell: If we take Wales, we have a population of around 3 million people. There are 8,000 War Disablement Pensions, almost 1,500 war widows’/widowers’ pensions, and 250 Armed Forces Compensation payments. The Welsh Government has decided to provide access and support for veterans through the All Wales Health and Wellbeing Service. Since 2010 the Welsh Government has provided £485,000 annually to the NHS directly aimed at mental health for veterans. Combat Stress, a charity, are currently providing treatment for 769 veterans within Wales.

In Scotland, which has a population of 5.2 million, there are 4,105 War Disablement Pensions, 2,150 war widows’/widowers’ pensions, 535 Armed Forces Compensation payments, and £400,000 has been given to facilitate 60 projects for the benefit of veterans. They have also donated £1.7 million to Combat Stress, and Combat Stress are currently providing treatment for 721 veterans.

Q32 Lady Hermon: What is the comparison with Northern Ireland?

Iain Creswell: Northern Ireland, as you are probably well aware, has a population of 1.8 million. There are 3,754 War Disablement Pensions, 665 war widows’/widowers’ pensions, 70 Armed Forces Compensation payments, and Combat Stress are currently providing treatment for 776 veterans throughout Ireland. They cover both North and South.

Lady Hermon: Yes, we would be interested to hear more about that.

Iain Creswell: No direct or ring-fenced funding has been provided to the best of our knowledge.

Lady Hermon: That is a very stark contrast. That is very helpful, thank you.

Iain Creswell: It is a stark contrast.

Lady Hermon: Yes, it is.

Iain Creswell: If we even extrapolate a little bit further, the 776 veterans are the ones we know about. One of the problems we have found with veterans is that, because of the security situation in Northern Ireland, veterans are loth to go through the NHS route. They go directly to Combat Stress because they do not want to raise with their GP that they are a veteran, simply because of what may happen-or their perceived risk. The risk may be there, or may not be there, but it is their perception, and it is their perception that really matters. That is why we in the VA&PC decided to go round every council in Northern Ireland and give them a presentation of the work that we did, and asked for a veterans advocate from each council. We asked for that so that a veteran living in one particular council area could feel safe to go, and there was a point of contact within that council, so that they could get the services of a councillor.

Q33 Lady Hermon: Did all councils in Northern Ireland co-operate?

Iain Creswell: Most of them did. Again, back to these statistics, Lady Hermon. I hate to quote the statistics, but out of the 26 councils, two decided against appointment, 11 have appointed a veterans advocate, we are waiting for confirmation from six, and one presentation is pending. One presentation had to be abandoned, and five councils did not invite us to give a presentation.

Q34 Lady Hermon: Did not invite you? Do you mean to say they refused to have you?

Iain Creswell: They did not refuse. They just did not respond to us.

Lady Hermon: Oh, did not respond.

Iain Creswell: We asked them if they would invite us to give a presentation to the council meeting, and out of those, five did not respond.

Q35 Lady Hermon: I don’t want to put you on the spot, because I really don’t want anybody exposed to either criticism or increased risk, but would you be able to identify the two councils at the very beginning who definitely do not appoint a representative?

Iain Creswell: I would rather not identify those councils.

Lady Hermon: That is absolutely fine.

Iain Creswell: Because it was a voluntary thing, we decided to go to the councils and have them appoint someone. If the councils decided not to do it, then-

Lady Hermon: You respected that.

Iain Creswell: That was their wish, and we would respect that for them. If we did have a representative there, well and good. If we did not, then we will pass on. I do not want to go down the route of RPA, but if we do go down the proposed route of RPA that seems to be on the table at the moment of 11 councils, we shall have representation on 10 of those.

Lady Hermon: Right, that sounds like a casting vote in favour of reform.

Iain Creswell: I think they can work it out between them, Lady Hermon.

Q36 Ian Paisley: Just a last detail on that aspect of it: of the councils that did not see you for whatever reason, would you have a target audience in that council district of your veterans that you would be aware of?

Iain Creswell: Two of them we would.

Q37 Oliver Colvile: This has been an area in which I have taken quite a keen interest during the course of the last two and a half years. As you probably know, I represent a naval garrison city, so there are issues to do with veterans that I most certainly come across.

Lady Hermon: Plymouth, in case you do not know.

Oliver Colvile: Yes, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Devonport being the naval base. The issue, which is most certainly the case, is, if you do not look after veterans, some of them will end up taking to drink, some of them will end up homeless, some of them will end up having very big mental problems, as you may know. It could be 15 years after they have left-an incident that people suddenly have mental health issues in quite a big way, and British Legion most certainly are picking up quite a bit of stuff from people who served in the Falklands. Has very much research been done within Northern Ireland on the number of people who are suffering from alcoholism who have a history of being in the services, and likewise the homeless? Has there been any research done into that kind of demographic profile at all?

Chris Carson: No, not to our knowledge.

Iain Creswell: Certainly there is a charity that has just started up in Northern Ireland. Soldiers Off the Streets originated in Wales, and they are a charity that goes around the homeless, trying to pick up these people off the streets. They tell me that there are a lot of people even sofa-surfing, which is a phrase that they use. They get discharged from the forces, and they have no fixed abode. They are staying in a friend’s house, sleeping on the sofa, which is obviously where the term comes from. Then they are moving on to another friend. Now that itself compounds things; because they have no fixed abode, they cannot get benefits. Because they cannot get benefits, they are more or less out begging on the street. Certainly in Northern Ireland, as far as I know, to date there have been two people that Soldiers Off the Street have picked up on, and they have got them assistance. There are a lot more in Wales and Scotland, but certainly in Northern Ireland, that is it. The other aspect of it is the alcohol, which you have just alluded to. As far as I am aware, no research is being done, but I know there was a pilot project somewhere in the south of England. I cannot remember offhand where it was, but they tapped into the local constabulary, and they asked them to identify veterans who were coming through custody with them for one thing and other, to try to get them help and assistance. Now certainly, that is something that we may have a vision for further down the line, but the first thing we want to do is raise awareness, and get somebody with a focal point that they can go to, and somebody that has administrative and overarching responsibility for the veterans.

Oliver Colvile: The irony behind all of this is that, if something is not done regarding these people, it is going to have a significant financial implication, not only for the local authorities but for the Executive as well. I would have thought we should most certainly seek to make sure some analysis is done, even if it is only going to be done by one of the universities-it is the kind of thing that they most certainly would have a very good understanding about-so it can be seen to be independent, rather than necessarily political. Thank you very much.

Q38 Mr Benton: I want to ask you a question about the input of charitable organisations into the problem. However, before I do, there is something clouding my mind regarding the recent exchanges-the questions and responses. There seems to be a lack of uniformity, hence the disparity in the Northern Ireland situation. How is it going to be resolved? I know you are trying to have exchanges and dealing with UK Government. I do appreciate all the different problems, after being involved in action and so on. I understand there are different categories, but is the funding formula that is applied correct? Is Northern Ireland getting treated differently in terms of funding? I would have thought that, after people have given sometimes their life and their service for the country, and it has had all these terrible effects, there would be a uniform approach right across the UK. I am having difficulty in trying to appreciate how Northern Ireland is being discriminated against. It is certainly wrong if they are being discriminated against in any way, because all ex-servicemen, in my view, should be treated equally and properly. This really is the key point for me. So I would like some clarification on how you view that. I do not know why, but I seem to sense that maybe the funding formula is not right. However, certainly if there is discretion for it to be applied in a different way in different parts of the UK, I cannot see any justification for that. This leads me on to the question about expectation from the UK Government. I can understand that it is necessary to take it to UK Government and say, "Look, this is going on. Rectify it." What response would you expect from the UK Government? I think it is appalling that you have had letters ignored when raising this problem, but I think at the same time it is proper to ask what your expectation of a helpful response might be, and what you would like to see the UK Government do. If I may just come back to the question I was going to ask about the charitable sector, what role do they now play in terms of this deficiency?

Chair: The answer might have to be slightly shorter than the question.

Chris Carson: On the first part of the question, with regard to funding, as Iain has already explained, the Northern Ireland Executive have not funded any service or ex-service scheme within Northern Ireland since the Service Personnel Command Paper went before the session of 13 July 2008, which led to the Covenant. With regard to the charities, the charities will just roll on as they have always done: the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and SSAFA Forces Help. They will continue to put in the support that they can, and with the veterans on the ground that need their help. That will not change in any way, shape or form, and they will just keep on going. If we did not have the ex-service charities, the veterans in Northern Ireland would have no support whatsoever.

Q39 Lady Hermon: Could I just add to that, Mr Carson? How regularly would you meet with representatives from Combat Stress, SSAFA and the Army Benevolent Fund-all of those wonderful charities?

Chris Carson: Our committee meets three times a year, and their people are all represented on our committee. However, through other bodies we would be represented with them. Although I am Acting Chair of this committee, I am also a caseworker for the Royal British Legion. I have been a past Northern Ireland Chairman of the Legion, so I am well involved with those running the Legion within Northern Ireland, and we talk to each other. I have direct input into SSAFA. If I go to somebody’s home and think that in my personal opinion they may need some support mentally, then I will simply refer them directly to the Director of SSAFA in Northern Ireland, because he sits on this committee.

Q40 Lady Hermon: Thank you, and that leads into the point that in fact I think you are very usefully making: there may be more cooperation between the Army charities-if I can call them generally the ex-services charities, but those who are serving as well-in Northern Ireland as compared with perhaps other parts of the United Kingdom, given the size of Northern Ireland and the high regard that the armed services are held in by a very, very large section of the community. Would that be accurate?

Chris Carson: Very much so. I don’t know if you aware, Lady Hermon, that the Royal British Legion, SSAFA Forces Help and a number of the other charities actually all operate out of the same building in Belfast. So on the welfare side, they do meet on a regular basis-I am sure they do.

Q41 David Simpson: Chris, you said at the very beginning, I think in your opening comments or maybe in your answer to one of the questions, that there is no Northern Ireland representative within the Covenant reference group. What explanation has your organisation received for why there is no representation, and what has been done to try to fix that? What is the reason for that?

Chris Carson: We have had no explanation. I e-mailed the Covenant group from an e-mail address that I got online-it must have been around this time last year-and again, I never got an answer. These two reports, Mr Chairman-one for Scotland and one for Wales-are their up-to-date Covenant reports, and they are available online. Both of them speak highly of their representation on that group.

Q42 Nigel Mills: I think we talked earlier about the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive chose not to contribute to the first annual report on the Armed Forces Covenant. You were obviously not happy about that. Do you think we should change the law to say that not only should the Secretary of State have to consult with them, but they should be obliged to reply?

Chris Carson: Yes.

Nigel Mills: That seems suitably clear.

Q43 Mr Anderson: Within your submission to us you talked about the issues around section 75. While we probably do not have the same legal principles in this part of the United Kingdom, I would be very, very clear that a civilised nation would want to live to most of the principles in section 75. It would appear to me that you believe that section 75 is being used to stop work happening, and you make the comment that "Some use it to veto any progress, and others use it as an excuse not to do anything." Who do you believe uses it as a veto, and who is using it as an excuse not to do anything?

Chris Carson: Again, I should say, Chair, that we are not political animals, and those Northern Ireland MPs here will actually know who I am talking about. In some cases when you try to do something for the ex-service community, some politicians within Northern Ireland would say, "No," using section 75 as a legal document to say that we cannot treat people differently and that everybody has to be treated the same. We have other politicians who would say, "Look, I am sorry but we cannot do that, because of section 75." We are saying that section 75 is not a barrier to implementing the vast majority, if not the whole, of the Armed Forces Covenant, because although we cannot go down the route of Scotland and Wales, with priority housing for ex-servicemen and that sort of stuff, there are still things that we can do within the Covenant that do not need section 75. No, it should not be used simply to stop everything, which we believe is happening at the moment.

Q44 Mr Anderson: Have you been told this formally? Have you got it in writing?

Chris Carson: No, you are never going to be told something like that formally-I am sure you are not. It is when you have individual meetings with individual politicians, and they say, "Look, we can try so-and-so. We can try this, but we’re probably not going to be able to because of section 75." You never hear back, and there is no more information available. So you have got to believe that some of them will use it and some of them will not.

Q45 Mr Anderson: However, there are clearly issues, and I will give you some examples, relating to section 75. Firemen retire earlier than bin men; policemen retire earlier than postmen; mental health nurses retire earlier than general nurses. I am trying to look at the service people. That was their job. We can call it a career. Their job was to go and serve the nation. They have come out, and they have got the right to be treated the same, whether it is this side of the Irish Sea or the other side of the Irish Sea. So can we be very clear that section 75 is not being flagged up to you formally? If you write and say, "Why are we not being allowed to do x?" you will not get a response that says, "You can’t do this because section 75 specifically prohibits that happening."

Chris Carson: If we wrote a letter asking, "Why can’t ex-servicemen get priority housing when they retire from the services and come home to live?", we would get a letter back simply saying that they would have to go on the housing list, the same as everybody else, because everybody in Northern Ireland is treated the same as a result of that section.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the first thing I would say on that again is that there are many, many parts of the Armed Forces Covenant that we can implement that will not affect or touch section 75. There has been the odd mutation-that section 75 should be amended. I would agree that one amendment to section 75 should also include that you should not be discriminated against because of what job you had in the past. However, that is not a barrier.

Q46 Mr Anderson: That should be in section 75 anyway.

Chris Carson: Yes.

Mr Anderson: You should not be discriminated against because of what your job was, regardless.

Chris Carson: Even that would not change the perception of everybody in Northern Ireland being treated the same. Servicemen and women from Northern Ireland leaving the armed forces after however many years are going to think long and hard about returning to Northern Ireland, because if they cannot get housing, if they have to sofa-surf, and if they cannot get the support of services that their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom are getting, then they are going to stay in the rest of the United Kingdom. We are then going to lose people who are valuable to the community, who have been well trained in management-people who would spend money in our community. We are not going to get them back. That is why we are saying section 75 is not a reason to stop everything. There is no reason to stop simply because we cannot get an ex-servicemen or woman a priority house. That does not mean we should throw out the whole Covenant.

Q47 Mr Anderson: Could you, for our benefit, and particularly those of us who do not live in Northern Ireland, give us in writing some of your ideas as to why section 75 is being used to prevent this, and some of your ideas as to why it would not be?

Chair: Have you had that question answered Dave? Sorry.

Mr Anderson: Are you okay to do that?

Chris Carson: Yes.

Q48 Lady Hermon: Just to follow on from Mr Anderson’s question, in reply, Mr Carson, you actually said-and I noted it-that many parts of the Armed Forces Covenant in fact could be implemented. Could you just identify them? In fact, I think you actually implied that the vast majority of it could be applied without going near section 75, and that section 75 is not a barrier, and should not be used as a barrier. What could we do? What are the areas of the Armed Forces Covenant that could just be implemented?

Chris Carson: There are pages and pages.

Lady Hermon: Just a couple of examples.

Chris Carson: A very simple one would be drop-in centres for ex-service personnel leaving the service. Those people that have left for many years can drop in to a one-stop shop where they can get advice on benefits, on job prospects, on a multitude of everyday things that people need, and that is just one thing. There is actually one centre like that outside of the political system, and that is being run by a charity in Northern Ireland at the moment. It is, I am told, very, very successful.

Lady Hermon: Excellent. That is a very good example.

Q49 Oliver Colvile: Just keeping on this theme, in your own submission you said that some would say that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act should be amended. What amendment would you like to see, and have you had any discussions at all with Bob Collins, whom I understand is the Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission? Have you had any discussions with the Equality Commission? What have they said?

Chris Carson: We have not had discussions, but Iain has an answer to that question.

Oliver Colvile: He has got a similar view to you, I suspect.

Chris Carson: Yes.

Iain Creswell: If I can take you back to 2009, 2010, when in Stormont a Private Member’s Bill, an armed forces Bill, was attempted to be enacted. However, at the committee stage, the committee took advice on implementing this, and the Equality Commission said at the time that on the face of it, when they talked about priority treatment-and I will come back to that, if I may, in a minute-it looked as if it would breach section 75. However, on further scrutiny of the Bill, they found nothing in it that would contravene section 75.

I said I would come back to priority treatment, because certainly in Scotland they talk about priority treatment in housing, and in Wales they talk about it as well. We are not talking about priority treatment. All we are looking for is equality. An example that I would give is a service leaver leaving the armed forces and applying for housing. When applying for social housing in Northern Ireland, you fill in a form, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive operates a points system. Some will get points depending on the accommodation they are living in at the moment. Well, if someone is living in married quarters, then they do not get extra points because they are not living in good accommodation. People also get points for the number of years they have been on the housing waiting list, and, again, a serving member of the armed forces cannot get any of those years because they have spent those years serving in the armed forces. There is also provision in that for someone who is being intimidated; if they have been intimidated out of their house for one reason or another, they do automatically get extra points. So there is provision in that, which does not breach equality law, for someone to get, if we like, a special circumstance treated. That is all we are asking for-some way, some mechanism. Certainly we would leave the mechanism itself to the politicians. However, all we are saying is that consideration should be given for situations like that, so that we do not have a service leaver coming out of married quarters one day and finding themselves living with relatives the next.

Q50 Kate Hoey: Can I just come in on that? You have already mentioned some of the amendments that you would like to see, in the sense that you want to have people treated equally. I genuinely do not understand, because section 75 at the moment clearly does allow people with different housing needs to be treated differently. Clearly everybody in Northern Ireland is not treated equally, just as everybody in my constituency who wants housing is not treated equally. Somebody who has got particular special needs gets treated differently. I kind of feel that section 75 is being used by certain sections to almost say that this couldn’t happen when, actually, I cannot see why it couldn’t.

Iain Creswell: You are absolutely right. My interpretation of section 75 is that there is nothing wrong it.

Q51 Kate Hoey: Has somebody who thinks they are the top legal person in Northern Ireland said, "We cannot possibly bring in this, because this would be going against section 75"?

Iain Creswell: I think it is a case of every organisation doing this. I would draw the analogy with health and safety at work. Having been involved with health and safety at work, I have heard so many times risk assessors saying, "You can’t do that because of health and safety," which I think is an absolute nonsense. You can do it, but because of health and safety, you have got to take extra precautions and you have got to take a measured approach. That is what I think people should be doing with section 75; rather than saying it is prohibited under Section 75 and using that as a blanket approach, they should be getting into the minutiae of it and saying, "Look, what is there here? Is there a case to answer? Would it breach section 75?" and look at the detail of it.

Q52 Kate Hoey: So amendments are not really what you are pushing for?

Iain Creswell: No, absolutely not.

Chris Carson: No.

Oliver Colvile: I just think I should correct something that I said, Mr Chairman: Bob Collins is actually the former commissioner, not the current one. I would hate for him to suddenly feel that he is responsible for this.

Q53 Nigel Mills: I think we have kicked around this point of whether or not the Armed Forces Covenant seeks priority for veterans in certain situations. I guess I am no expert, but my feeling was that it did seek to give priority in some situations, and that was kind of the point. So I can see your argument that you want special circumstances taken into account, which is a subtle difference to priority being given. I am trying to balance that with what your written submission said-that you are actually looking for parity with how veterans are treated elsewhere in the UK. My understanding was that we did now give some priority to veterans elsewhere in the UK, so if you had parity with that, you would effectively have some priority in Northern Ireland. I am just a little concerned that the word "priority" is effective here, and therefore does give you a problem.

Iain Creswell: What I could suggest to you is, if we look at the situation of medical treatment and priority, any GP throughout the country, or any doctor throughout the country, will tell you they will always treat a patient on clinical need. If two people present with similar situations, they will always treat the one with the most clinical need first. So there, priority treatment in the medical sense is really a misnomer. If we take the likes of housing, again, all I am saying, and all we are saying, is that we should consider it. It may be that somebody has a greater need than someone else, and it may be over a service leaver. Somebody who has been living in Northern Ireland for years may have as good and as great a need as the person leaving the forces. That is fine; I do not have an issue with that. However, what I do have an issue with is somebody going away, spending years serving their country, and somebody else staying at home, accumulating points to get housing, and the person who has been away in the forces not being able to accumulate those points.

Q54 Nigel Mills: But you think the spirit of the Covenant can clearly be implemented without contravening section 75.

Iain Creswell: Yes, absolutely

Chris Carson: Yes.

Q55 Jack Lopresti: When he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on its inquiry to support veterans in Wales, the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans said that the views of some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities of the Covenant have created a difficulty in Northern Ireland. Would you agree with that?

Chris Carson: That is certainly the perception. I have to say, at this time we have not run up against it. As Iain explained earlier, our committee have been doing PowerPoint presentations at local councils up and down the country. I think we would suggest we had a rough time at only one of them, but at the rest of them we were treated with total respect. Now, not all of the councils had their Sinn Fein members attending at that time. At some they did attend, and at some they did not, and those that did made their speech, and that was it. We were treated with respect, and we were allowed to make our PowerPoint presentation. We were allowed to come and go; there was no hassle, no worries. So we have not come up against it directly, but of course it is always in the background. If-I touch wood in the old-fashioned way-the Northern Ireland Executive decided to do something about the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant within Northern Ireland at a political level, then I have absolutely no doubt there would be opposition to it from Sinn Fein.

Q56 David Simpson: Gentlemen, Health, Social Services and Public Safety published a protocol some time ago to ensure equality in access to health and social services for the armed services. From your experience, do you believe that is being implemented, or that it is a step in the right direction? Or is what they are saying in their protocol actually actioned-does it happen?

Chris Carson: Yes, they have done. In Northern Ireland there has been some work done by them. They have sent letters to all the trusts within Northern Ireland asking for responses. I am unaware if they got responses, but through the Northern Ireland forum they had sent out letters to the-I do not know what you call them these days-directors or leaders of the trust or whatever.

David Simpson: Chief executives.

Chris Carson: Chief executives. They were asking for some input into that. I am unaware at this stage whether they got any replies or not.

Q57 Oliver Colvile: You have answered very well all the issues to do with local authorities in Northern Ireland as to how they are served; I am not going to ask you about that. However, there are obviously a number of military, from not only the Army but the RAF, the Royal Marines and the Navy, who are living in Southern Ireland too. One of the concerns that I slightly have is that the British Government should see its responsibility of looking after all those members of the armed forces who may be retired, whether they happen to live within the British Isles as whole or, frankly, in Australia, South Africa or any other part of the world. I understand that your job is very much based on Northern Ireland, but how much connection have you got also with some of those veterans who are down in Southern Ireland? The Irish Government will not see the same kind of responsibility necessarily that the British Government does, so how can we make sure that those people are also looked after as far as some of those big issues like mental health are concerned?

Chris Carson: Regarding mental health issues for those ex-members of the British armed forces living in the Republic of Ireland, they come under the auspices of Combat Stress within Northern Ireland. Their caseworkers travel up and down, visit them, and help get them into treatment if need be. So providing that the ex-serviceman or woman knows about them, help is available.

Q58 Oliver Colvile: So what we don’t do is leave them out to dry?

Chris Carson: No, but there is no discussion that I am aware of involving the Government and the local ex-service organisations within Dublin. I know they do get on very well, in particular with the Royal British Legion, and the Irish Government get on very well with Combat Stress, for example, and are great supporters of the Royal British Legion in the Republic of Ireland.

Q59 Oliver Colvile: Is it fair to say that the Combat Stress charity has good links into the British Government?

Chris Carson: Yes.

Oliver Colvile: So if they need a bit of Whitehall clout-which may or may not be good news, I don’t know-they can go and talk to them.

Chris Carson: They have two ways. They have the way through their own system, up through COBSEO; and they have a way through via the SPVA, and the head of the Veterans Welfare Service, to the Minister.

Q60 Lady Hermon: First, just following on from my colleague’s question, do you think it would be beneficial if our current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had a good chat with her counterpart and with the Taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland? If there is such a good working relationship in Dublin and in the Republic of Ireland, that could be helpful in contributing to an improvement in the situation for you in Northern Ireland.

Chris Carson: That may well be the case, but that would need to be put to the chairman of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee in the Republic of Ireland. He would need to have a think about that, and decide what way to move on that.

Q61 Mr Benton: My question was going to be about the comparability with the Republic, and I think you have covered it in previous answers. Do you think there would be any merit in this Committee meeting your counterparts in the Republic?

Chris Carson: I would have to speak to Sean. I know Sean Murphy very well. He is the chairman of the VA&PC down there. He is also the chairman of the Royal British Legion down there. His President is The O’Morchoe-General David. He would be the one to talk to.

Q62 Mr Benton: Do you think the Committee would learn anything further?

Chris Carson: You probably would not learn anything further than what you have learned today.

Q63 Dr McDonnell: Apologies, I was delayed at a meeting with a Minister elsewhere. I am intrigued because I think this hinges on equality versus priority, or equality versus bias and favouritism. One of the things you did mention earlier, just as I came in, was the question of a drop-in centre. What would it take to provide two or three centres that would be special liaison or lobbying agents for ex-servicemen and women? I feel that they could probably get 80% or 90% of what you are looking for. If an ex-serviceman or woman was disadvantaged, I am quite happy as an MP, and I am sure my Northern Ireland colleagues would be honoured, to ensure we do something, but even just for the sake of privacy and whatever sensitivities they might have it would help if there was somewhere that they could have an agency representing them beyond your own efforts. Has anybody made any effort to find out how much that would cost? Are we talking about £100,000, or £50,000?

Chris Carson: Sadly, there has been no effort made to look into any schemes whatsoever for the ex-service community within Northern Ireland, in comparison with the local governments within Wales and Scotland, who have set up and fund many schemes. Until the Northern Ireland Executive first agrees the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant, and secondly, sets up someone or a committee with responsibility for the armed forces and the veterans in Northern Ireland, nothing will happen. Yes, we can go through our charities, and I have absolutely no doubt I can get a professional to do what you suggest and work out the funding cost for this type of thing. I could probably go to the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress and a few other charities, such as Help for Heroes, and say, "Look, this is our proposal. These are our plans." I have no doubt that funding would come through for that sort of stuff, but that still does not negate the fact that our own local politicians are not getting involved. We feel that that is vitally important.

Q64 Dr McDonnell: You know there is sensitivity around section 75.

Chris Carson: Of course.

Dr McDonnell: We have teased some of it out here today, and some people will engage and try to tease it out in debate or discussion, whereas others just back off and do not want to get involved. My personal view is that everything that can be done-sure, without tangling with section 75-should be done. Then if you find section 75 is a barrier, look at that. However, I think the thing would be best dealt with in two phases, and that you deal with what is available first of all. I have a medical background, and all I can tell you is that, in my experience, any of the medical people I know would have always given a degree of priority-not massive priority, but somebody who had a military injury would always have got a little bit of extra attention. So what I am looking at is how that could be formalised.

Chris Carson: This is something that our local Executive has to work on and sort out. This is what I said earlier: they must be seen by the ex-service community to be involved in, for want of a better word, the aftercare of the community, and indeed the service community. The Northern Ireland service community have their direct line through Government anyway, through the Minister of Defence. The ex-service community do not. They have no one that they can go to directly, politically, for help, support and guidance.

Dr McDonnell: I am fully conscious of that, because I do a lot of work with former civil servants who are in a similar position. The day they walk out of a civil service job, they are abandoned, and lot of their pension problems and so on, nobody wants to know about them. Nobody will deal with them, and a lot of them have used me-I will not say abused me-and I have certainly done whatever I could to help them. I would be very sympathetic to some sort of formalised structure that would protect the interests of exservicemen and women, because I am acutely conscious of a number of issues, particularly mental health issues, stress issues and all the rest.

Q65 Lady Hermon: What in an ideal world would you like this Committee to be saying in its report?

Chris Carson: I would like the Committee to be saying that the Northern Ireland Executive has to recognise the Armed Forces Covenant, and agree the principles. I would like the Committee to agree that Northern Ireland needs to be represented on the Armed Forces Covenant working group, and that either a Minister or a committee within the Northern Ireland Executive needs to be set up to look after the interests of the service and ex-service community within Northern Ireland.

Chair: Thank you. Are there any further questions?

Mr Benton: Just for clarification, it is not for the witnesses, but I think a germane issue is the uniformity aspect as disclosed by Government. Just a flashback in history going over wars and various conflicts-I am just staggered to think that there is no mandatory national Government policy.

Q66 Chair: We can bring these points out when we look at the report. Is there anything else you would like to tell the Committee, anything we have not covered?

Chris Carson: No thank you, Chairman. Thank you very much indeed. We very much appreciate the opportunity to put our side directly to you.

Lady Hermon: We very much appreciate it.

Chair: Thank you very much.

Chris Carson: If any member of the Committee would like any clarification or an answer to any other questions, if they let me know through the committee secretary, we will certainly answer the questions for you.

Chair: Thank you very much. Thank you for coming.

[1] A copy of the first letter and response has been published as supplementary written evidence from the Northern Ireland Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee. Copies of the last two letters could not be located.

[2] Note from witness: A new chairman has been appointed from the DHSSPS, the next meeting is due on 30 April 2013.

Prepared 16th July 2013