Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 17 April 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr Joe Benton

Oliver Colvile

Lady Hermon

Kate Hoey

Naomi Long

Jack Lopresti

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

David Simpson


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Colonel Richard Gordon DL, Branch Chairman for NI, SSAFA Forces Help, and Brian Maguire, Area Manager for Ireland, Royal British Legion, gave evidence.

Q128 Chair: Apologies for keeping you waiting; we just had quite a bit of business to get through. Thank you very much for joining us. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the application of the Armed Forces Covenant, with particular reference to Northern Ireland. We are very grateful to you for joining us today. Would you like to make any brief opening remarks, Colonel Gordon?

Colonel Gordon: I don’t think so. I apologise for putting in my memo rather late in the day, and I assume the Committee has seen that. That probably covers most of the background to what we want to say today, so I am happy to take the questions as they come.

Brian Maguire: Likewise, I have made a written submission on behalf of the Legion. I am happy for that standing before the Committee.

Chair: Thank you for those submissions.

Q129 Jack Lopresti: Welcome. Thank you for coming. This is a question for either or both of you. What are your views on the principles enshrined in the Armed Forces Covenant and how would you like to see them implemented in particular, possibly, in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Gordon: The view that maybe we have not expressed so much in the submission is that we do not see huge disadvantages by not having it implemented in Northern Ireland. I think you could argue some areas at the fringes might be improved if it were implemented, but by and large the cases and the clients that we have in SSAFA would not be any better advantaged if we had the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant.

Brian Maguire: Likewise, I have been in my current position for three years, and I cannot point to a single case, in all the cases we have dealt with in our time, where I can say for sure that the individual would have been better treated had they been living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Q130 Jack Lopresti: That is great to hear, but it has been enshrined in law to give more protection to veterans and their families, and in terms of the whole welfare aspect. You do not feel in any way that that will enhance your ability to deliver services and welfare in particular. It does not sound like it is going to make much difference either way, as far as you are aware. Would that be a correct analysis?

Colonel Gordon: Some of specific areas are flagged up, such as housing. In Great Britain, housing is dealt with by local authorities; in Northern Ireland, it is dealt with by the Housing Executive, which is a single body. People come to us on leaving the services and say, "What about housing?" We say, "You have to go and register with the Housing Executive," but we know that the Housing Executive will say, "You’ve got no points; you have to go down the private rental route". At which point, they may well come back to us and say, "I need a month’s rent deposit and a month’s rent in advance," in which case we or the British Legion will look at that, and do so on a regular basis. I do not think there is a huge disadvantage as such.

Brian Maguire: It is important to emphasise-I am sure the Committee has heard this already from other people who have appeared here-that there is already a very high level of co-operation amongst not just the service charities, but the other stakeholders in this particular sector. I would also say that, in some cases, some of the issues that are at stake here would not actually be affected by the full implementation of the military covenant. Issues to do with the security of individuals and their willingness to disclose their service background are not going to be affected.

Q131 Oliver Colvile: Thank you very much indeed to you both for coming to see us. Why do you think that the Covenant is not being implemented in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Gordon: My understanding is that objections have been raised in terms of clause 75 or paragraph 75 of the Belfast Agreement, in that it would be therefore positively discriminatory in favour of a particular group of people. If that manifested itself by giving them some advantage that was not available to the population at large that would be unacceptable.

Q132 Oliver Colvile: These are people who have given their lives to try to protect peace in Northern Ireland.

Colonel Gordon: The Covenant does not have the force of law. Therefore, it depends on the good will of the people who can implement change in favour of other people to make a difference. I used the example of housing. If a local authority in Great Britain decides that they will look favourably on service-leavers in terms of housing that is one way of looking at it. Other people might say that is positive discrimination, but you may have valid reason for doing it-a very good reason to do it, because of what you just said.

Q133 Oliver Colvile: I was under the impression that we had actually voted for the Armed Forces Covenant to actually be in law as well.

Jack Lopresti: It is enshrined in law.

Colonel Gordon: It is referred to in law. It is not law, as I understand it.

Jack Lopresti: The principles are enshrined in the statute for the first time, so it is the law of the land. It is not a voluntary code of practice; it is laid down in statute.

Colonel Gordon: Forgive me, but the Ministry of Defence publication, which is "Armed Forces Covenant Myth Buster", says it is not a legal document. "It is referenced in the Armed Forces Act … and the Secretary of State … is legally required to report to Parliament on its progress." It does not have the force of law.

Jack Lopresti: I am not a lawyer, but it was part of the Bill and the principle of it being enshrined in law for the first time was hugely significant.

Oliver Colvile: Mr Chairman, it may be the case that we will want to invite the Ministry of Defence to come and explain that comment to us. That might be helpful.

Chair: It is a very interesting point, which I think we will need to-

Q134 Oliver Colvile: We talked about Section 75. If you were in our position, how would you actually try to enforce the military covenant to get round that issue of Section 75? How do you think we might do it?

Colonel Gordon: Brian can speak for himself, but I would take a step back. What is the existing provision of welfare for veterans and serving people in Northern Ireland? We should assess what the existing provision is and say, "Are there gaps and would those gaps be filled, if gaps there be, by the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant?" Our general view is probably not.

Brian Maguire: Can I just add that the Royal British Legion is a very large organisation.

Oliver Colvile: It is a very good organisation as well.

Brian Maguire: Thank you. I agree with that, obviously. At national level-at corporate level, if you like, within the organisation-the Legion lobbied successfully for the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant. I operate more at the coalface, and my particular coalface is the island of Ireland. Where I operate, I am operating to achieve the best possible benefit and the best possible outcome for our beneficiaries and for our clients. I do that within our operating environment. We try to stay out of politics, certainly at local level. We are nonpolitical; we are nonsectarian; and we are crosscommunity. We operate to achieve the best possible result for our beneficiaries. My experience in the three years I have been in the Legion is that this particular issue is not presenting us with any particular problems.

Q135 Oliver Colvile: You are not saying that there is any gap at all. I have just come back from a funeral, as you can probably tell, of someone who was reputed to get things done. I am interested to know how we can actually do that. You are saying that it is not actually holding you back from being able to deliver a service to the armed forces. Is that right?

Brian Maguire: I can only speak on behalf of the Legion. I am quite sure that other people who have appeared before the Committee may have told you otherwise, but I am relating my personal experience operating on behalf of the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland.

Colonel Gordon: The same would be true for SSAFA.

Q136 David Simpson: Gentlemen, you are very welcome. You may have touched on this, but could you define for us the role of your organisations in supporting the armed forces community in Northern Ireland? We have an outline of the Legion and SSAFA. Mr Gordon, you touched on the housing issue a little bit as well, but could you define the two roles? I know there is a close relationship, but could you define the two roles?

Brian Maguire: As far as the Legion is concerned, our strategy is based on four pillars, and those four pillars are welfare, representation, remembrance and comradeship. Welfare is first and foremost amongst that. We implement that strategy in all sorts of ways- we do it in financial ways; we offer emotional support; and we offer practical support. We work in partnership with other organisations, both other service charities and other agencies. We have for example a very successful partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau in Northern Ireland, offering benefits and money advice. That service operates both inside and outside the wire, as the expression goes, in that they are also based in some of the camps in Northern Ireland. We offer, for example, independent inquest advice for bereaved families. We can offer financial support, in terms of shortterm crisistype grants. We provide all sorts of practical assistance and advice.

I should also say that the organisation is currently undergoing a significant amount of change, under its Pathway for Growth programme, and that will see us taking a much more personcentred approach in future. We have structurally reorganised into 16 areas. I am area manager for one of those areas, and that area is Ireland, consisting of Northern Ireland and the Republic. The area office is in Belfast. The plan ultimately is that each one of these 16 area offices will basically look and feel the same, and will effectively act as a local dropin or popin type centre, a onestop shop, if you like, where somebody can call in, get advice and get support. If the Legion cannot help them, we will signpost them to somebody who can help them.

Colonel Gordon: SSAFA is fundamentally a caseworking organisation. We do not lobby and we do not campaign. We casework with clients. We work very closely with the British Legion; in fact, we cohabit with them in the same set of offices, which is hugely advantageous. We casework: when somebody who is a veteran, serving, families of or dependents of, including the TA, comes with a problem of any sort, we use a complex form called the Form A, and interact with other service charities as well. The caseworker sits down and spends quite a long time with the client going through all their background, their expenditures, their incomes, to work out what the financial situation is and to decide what they need. It could be a fill of oil; it could be paying a month’s rent in arrears; it could be whitegood replacements or something of that sort.

We do not give money to clients. We pay their bills. We will pay for a fill of oil if they get a quotation, but basically we almonise that money from other charities. We will go to the service benevolent funds; we will go to both military and nonmilitary charities, from where we can put together the money we need for those people. We do raise money in Northern Ireland, but we do not raise much more than can run the operation that we have. I have 25 trained caseworkers, who have done a two or threeday caseworking course, and they dealt last year with something like 400 or 500 cases. We almonised and put out about £100,000 to our clients.

Q137 David Simpson: Just as an aside question, do your organisations have much connection, with the War Graves Commission or is it a totally separate organisation?

Brian Maguire: No, we do not have any connection.

David Simpson: You have no linkages with them in relation to Northern Ireland.

Colonel Gordon: No.

Q138 Dr McDonnell: It is just a very simple question: do you get significant support, or how much do you receive, from the MOD, for instance, or the Northern Ireland Executive, in terms of the charities that you represent?

Colonel Gordon: We do not get, nor do we seek, any help from them. As far as the MOD is concerned, we have our relationships with them, because some of the people who come to us may well be, as Brian said, inside the wire. We do see people, because they do not want to go to their own people to solve their own problems. We do not rely on the Ministry of Defence, nor on Northern Ireland Government Departments, nor do we seek to.

Brian Maguire: Likewise, we are not financially reliant upon any external funding; we are internally funded. As far as the MOD is concerned, the Aftercare Service is part of the MOD and we would operate in close partnership, as would SSAFA, with the Aftercare Service. I have personal contact, on a regular basis, with various levels of MOD and the establishment, including the Army Welfare Service, the Personnel Recovery Unit, the Transition Unit and people like that who are relevant to our line of work.

Q139 Mr Benton: Welcome. Can I just turn to the problem of homelessness and alcoholism with former service members? The Committee has been told in previous evidence that there is no real accurate assessment in quantitative terms of how many people are affected. I just wondered if you were in a position at all to comment on the extent of the problem of homelessness and alcoholism, and if you have any suggestions to put to the Committee of how that might be assessed, first of all, and what we can do to help.

I listened carefully to your explanation about the possible conflict in terms of what might appear to be differential treatment, but I would like you to take into account another aspect of that, particularly where it is proven that armed forces personnel suffer from alcoholism or any other serious handicap sustained in the course of their duties. If that is directly attributable to their service to the nation, I, along with other Members of the Committee, feel very strongly that there should be some recognition of that, regardless of whether it has the force of law or not.

What is the extent of this problem, because nobody seems to know just how serious it is? Of course, it goes without saying that, certainly in my personal view, members of the armed services, no matter which part of the nation they come from, should not receive differential treatment.

Colonel Gordon: It is probably not going to give you much of an answer to say that I do not know the extent of it very much either. The reason for that is that we do not actually come across it. It is not an issue that lands on our desk or with our caseworkers, from clients, on the sort of basis that I could put any handle on it at all. Yes, we will get people saying, "I am coming out of the service; I need to live somewhere." I described the process that we go through in that case, but homelessness and problems deriving from alcohol-I think alcoholism is something that is a growing thing. Nationally amongst veterans, it is becoming an issue that is being focused on, but again we-certainly from the SSAFA point of view-are completely nonjudgmental. If people come to us with an issue, we will deal with that issue. We will not say, "Oh, it is because you are spending all your money on alcohol that you have a financial problem". We will deal with the problem they bring to us and not with what might be behind it. As far as homelessness is concerned, to be honest with you, it is not something that we see coming forward as a client issue at all.

Brian Maguire: Homelessness and alcoholism are issues for the exservice community, and some of my colleagues in Great Britain would deal with them and would have the resources to do so. Traditionally, they have not presented as a significant problem in Northern Ireland; however, there is, as you have rightly pointed out, a lack of research into the matter and it is something we are very cognisant of. We have recently commissioned research into this area. I mentioned the reorganisation of the Legion; it has been organised into three regions, and Ireland is part of the North region. There are regional specialists in that region, who deal with homelessness. We have asked those individuals to research what data are available to indicate the problem, if any, or to what extent the problem might be in Northern Ireland.

To reiterate what Richard said, on a daily basis, on a practical level, we are not coming across obvious evidence of a huge problem. I can specifically recall two individual referrals from a homeless centre in West Belfast, where it became apparent somehow to the people running the centre that the individuals concerned were exservice. They knew to call us and then we took it from there. That prompted me to do some followup correspondence with that centre to make sure that, if they got future people coming in, they could look for warning signs that they might be exservice, so that we could then help them. That is all I have to say on that.

Q140 Mr Benton: I am quite happy to acknowledge that not everybody can be categorised as suffering from this trauma. It must be difficult to identify an individual case, but on this lack of research that you refer to-and I think you have indicated that it is a bigger problem, quite a huge problem- it does seem wrong to me that somebody is not facilitating the means to conduct the research into it. I don’t know, but there are so many voluntary bodies that might possibly undertake this. Thanks anyway for your replies, which were helpful.

Brian Maguire: Can I just come back on one point? I do not want it to be believed that I am indicating that there is a bigger problem. I am saying we are not sure. There may be a problem there, but there are no obvious signs of it.

Mr Benton: I accept that.

Chair: Before I was elected, I worked for a charity for homeless people, and I know that homelessness is often hidden. That is one of the problems with it.

Q141 Oliver Colvile: One of the issues that accompanies both homelessness and alcoholism is mental health. You may have served with the British armed forces during the course of your time, and you may have seen conflict in Northern Ireland as well, and you may still want to live in what might be your home town or your home province in Northern Ireland, but you are very concerned that, if you end up actually having mental health problems, if you go and see your GP, he may sit there and say, "So how did you get this?" You then have to explain that you were involved in activities in Northern Ireland to protect the peace and all of that. Is that an issue, and do you either of you have the facilities in order to make sure that those people who have served with the armed forces, who may be suffering from mental health issues, and need help, can actually come to you knowing that they can be dealt with with a certain amount of sympathy, and will not potentially find themselves harassed and subjected to other things too?

Colonel Gordon: You are going to hear about that later on when you talk to the people from Combat Stress. Again, we are lucky in that, within the one building, we have the British Legion, SSAFA, Combat Stress and the Royal Air Forces Association.

Q142 Oliver Colvile: You would refer a problem to all of them, would you?

Colonel Gordon: We would signpost to the people who are best able to deal with it, in exactly the same way that Brian says. If we get a debt problem, we signpost it to the CAB and people who are qualified to deal with it, rather than try to deal with it ourselves, because it is a horribly dangerous area to start handling.

Q143 Oliver Colvile: Do you find many people who come to see you with mental health problems?

Brian Maguire: We have physically referred people before who have walked into our office to see the Royal British Legion. We have physically escorted them to the office of Combat Stress. That is the advantage of being colocated, but even if we were not colocated, we would still refer them. I would not say there are huge numbers involved. At the end of the day, the issue we are talking about here is trust: trust in your GP and trust in the Royal British Legion or whatever other organisation you approach. That is one of the issues, as I think I referred to earlier, because whether or not the Covenant is implemented, it is not going to affect that, because that is a mindset. It is a mindset that a lot of people will share in Northern Ireland because of their background.

Our office is on a street in Belfast city centre. It is a reasonably anonymous office but, despite that, we have had clients in that office who come in clearly nervous and who look out the blinds when they are there, because they may have been followed. The fact that they are still very security conscious and security aware is indicative of their type of background.

Q144 Oliver Colvile: There is a similar issue, I have to say, to do with those people who have not been in the army or the military, who have actually been affected as well-those civilians who have been victims of what happened during the course of the Troubles-and their mental health issues. That is another area that I suspect you do not get too involved in either.

The work of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish (Home Service)-and I understand that may have changed, and I would be interested-has been highlighted in evidence we have received so far. How highly does the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland value their services-the supporting organisations? One proposal we have heard is that the Aftercare Service should be extended to all veterans in Northern Ireland as well. Do you believe there is a strong case for this?

Colonel Gordon: Personally, I have some difficulty with that. I admire hugely what the Aftercare Service does. It is a bespoke set-up. It employs 12 caseworkers or something of that sort, and it deals with and can fast-track psychological and physiological care for former UDR and former Home Service Royal Irish Battalion people as well. If you start talking about extending the remit of that, you are talking about public funds being extended into other areas where there is existing provision. It takes you into the area of perhaps a mini veterans’ administration, not that we are ever going to have a veterans’ administration in the same way as they do in the United States. If I was a welfare charity worker in Glasgow, Newcastle upon Tyne or Bristol, and I saw all cap badges in Northern Ireland having positive discrimination and preferential treatment, which I was not able to deliver to my equivalents in those other cities, I might wonder whether that was fair.

Brian Maguire: It is an invaluable service, covering 63,000 direct dependents and, I believe, something like 200,000 indirect dependents. My concern would be that, if the service disappeared-I know that is not what you are asking-that burden would then shift to other organisations, probably principally to us and SSAFA, to a large extent. That would have resource implications for us if that gap suddenly appeared in the market. Whether or not it should be expanded, I would like to stay neutral on that. I do not want to speak against it, because I would not speak against anything that could provide a better service to the armed forces community out there. If I speak for it, it is almost stating there is a need out there and I do not personally think there is a need. I am with Richard on that: I think there is existing provision.

Q145 Oliver Colvile: The very big problem is surely the difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom-that there are special issues in Northern Ireland in terms of the Troubles and all of that, whereas in England, in Wales and in Scotland, it is a much easier business to get involved in and deal with, if I might say so. You have to be much more sensitive, would you not say, in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Gordon: Some of the people who come to us as clients are former UDR and former Royal Irish personnel. They may choose that they do not want to go and burden themselves to the Aftercare Service, because that is their own people. We do get some people from there. I agree with Brian: we value what they do hugely. There is no way that we could take on the burden of the welfare of all those people who they look after; it would just not be possible without our ramping up a huge number of extra people. I would have concerns about extending public funds into areas to deal with the sort of clients who we deal with on a daily basis, who are not dissimilar from the clients who are being dealt with in Newcastle, Bristol and Glasgow.

Q146 Jack Lopresti: Do you work with the Northern Ireland Executive Departments in relation to providing support for your clients and the armed forces community in general?

Colonel Gordon: No.

Brian Maguire: Personally no; we do not.

Q147 Jack Lopresti: To what extent is your work broadly hampered by the apparent reluctance or the inability of the Northern Ireland Executive as a whole to participate fully in implementing the Covenant? Does it have any impact on you at all-none of the political difficulties or variances of opinion?

Colonel Gordon: No. Again, we are not judgmental. Our clients come from wherever they come from. We have an office in the South as well and it deals with the same sort of thing. The answer is no; it does not impact.

Jack Lopresti: You just crack on and get on with it basically.

Q148 Lady Hermon: It is very nice indeed to see you both here this afternoon. We are all very sorry that we kept you waiting for so long to come in. Could I just clarify one key issue that you hinted at, at the very beginning, and you have just repeated it in response to my colleague? Colonel Gordon, you said at the very beginning that you did not see that the nonimplementation of the military covenant or the Armed Forces Covenant would be "a huge disadvantage". Yes? You are nodding in the correct direction that in fact that is what you said. Is it, in your view, the case that insisting upon the implementation of the military covenant in full and having it in legislative form, in Northern Ireland, would be unnecessarily divisive? If it is not a huge disadvantage not having it implemented, would it be, on the other hand, very divisive if it were implemented?

Colonel Gordon: Unless somebody can assess existing provision in a way that we cannot or have not, and can show that there are gaps that would be filled by the implementation, then I think that is right.

Brian Maguire: There is potential for it to be divisive and to have an overall negative effect, yes, because of the nature of Northern Ireland politics, which you are all far more familiar with than I am. Because of the very nature of politics, if you push hard in one direction, you will get a negative force in the other direction. My worry would be that things might actually turn out worse than they currently are. At the moment, we are operating successfully; we are operating in partnership. We have various means of communicating with each other that all work very well. My concern would be that, if too much attention was drawn to an issue like this here, it could actually have a negative impact on how we work in future.

Q149 Lady Hermon: In response, again, to my colleague across the way, when you said in a very short reply to, "Did you work closely with the Northern Ireland Departments in carrying out your work?" and you said, "No", actually you do not need to, because you are getting on and doing the things on the ground that exservice personnel need and presumably their families need. Could you say a little bit about how you look after the families of exservices personnel? For example, if someone has been in the services and that person was to die, and then we have a widow and we have children who are left and their funeral expenses, what actually happens in those cases? Does the family go to SSAFA first and then to the Royal British Legion?

Colonel Gordon: They can go to either, and we both work with the same form and the same format of assessing what the requirement is. We then exchange it between ourselves, or we go to other charities as well, and we put the money together if we decide that the case is a valid one-if there is eligibility. The one that you describe, a widow, would qualify as eligible. If dependents meet the criteria-and we do define dependents in our Royal Charter as well-then we would deal with them.

Brian Maguire: I can give you a very quick case study to cover that, if you like-an anonymised case study obviously. It is a couple of years old now. An individual, a man, joined the army as a married man with four young children, and he wanted to become an army chef. I think he was maybe 30 years of age when he achieved his ambition, and he was still in training when he got news that his wife had tragically died. He immediately had to leave training and go home. He had four kids to take care of. The Legion stepped in and the women’s section of the Royal British Legion in particular stepped in, because they have a particular interest in looking after children of service people. This individual was offered financial assistance, in terms of his children, in terms of school clothing, food vouchers, and he was given assistance in retraining. Now, as we move on two years, that individual has found his feet again. He has re-established himself as an individual. He is working on again.

Q150 Lady Hermon: Not as an army chef.

Brian Maguire: Not as an army chef, but as a chef actually. It is a very minor case study, but it sums up that we work together in that respect. If the women’s section had identified another need, they would have come either to the Legion or SSAFA; we always spread the financial burden of helping in a case like that. I should also say, in terms of families more generally, that the Royal British Legion operates a welfare break centre at Portrush. It is one of four in the United Kingdom; this one happens to be in Portrush, Bennet House. Recently, about a year ago, £2.5 million was spent on refurbishing Bennet House. It is an excellent establishment.

Q151 Lady Hermon: Could you give us some idea of how large it is, and how many families are catered for?

Brian Maguire: There are 16 rooms and there are facilities for those rooms to interconnect for larger families, if a family is deemed to meet the criteria for a break. Those criteria would include the basic Legion criteria of having served seven days’ paid service in the armed forces, but also being in receipt of meanstested benefits or, alternatively, having some other identified need. That need would be identified by a caseworker and assessed by a staff member in Belfast. That person would be awarded a welfare break of one week or two weeks, and that would be for them and, if necessary, a carer. Basically, for the time they were there, they would not have to spend any money; all their needs would be catered for and their day trips. It is basically a break away from the hardships of life.

Lady Hermon: Umbrellas are provided, if necessary.

Brian Maguire: Absolutely.

Q152 Oliver Colvile: During the course of the Easter recess, I went to see an organisation called HMS Heroes, which is based in my constituency and deals with the children of service families. One of the issues that they brought up with me was that, if you are a blood relative of a service family, you get looked after but, if you happen to be a stepchild, then you do not; you fall through the floor. The question is this: do you also make sure that you not only offer a service to the children of service families, but also to their stepchildren, because it may well be that those children’s mother or father got together with their partner when they were quite a young age? I just want to explore a little bit as to how much help you give to those stepchildren.

Colonel Gordon: From a SSAFA point of view, the word is "dependent" and that means financially dependent. We define dependency and, if they meet those criteria-and stepchildren of a certain age I am sure would do so-then they will be eligible.

Brian Maguire: Likewise, there is a list of very stringent and detailed criteria on eligibility for the Legion, but there is always room for exceptions to be made and exceptions are often made. A case can be made on an individual basis. For example, there have been recent cases in the Republic of Ireland that I know of, where the mother of a deceased person does not meet our criteria for a beneficiary, but they were given assistance, because we felt the need was there.

Q153 Oliver Colvile: Thank you for doing that. And reservists as well?

Colonel Gordon: Yes.

Brian Maguire: Yes.

Q154 David Simpson: Your comment has surprised me slightly in relation to the implementation of this Covenant in Northern Ireland being possibly divisive. We have listened to a number of witnesses and that is the first time, I believe, we have got that response from organisations such as yourselves. Maybe I am wrong, but is that a rule of thumb? Is that the general thought right across the whole of the Legion and SSAFA-that to push this could have a negative impact?

Colonel Gordon: We just have to look at it terribly cautiously, because we are aware that there is opposition, and we are already aware that there is a degree, however slight, of polarisation in people’s approach to the implementation. Anything that exacerbated that clearly is not going to be helpful, because it is not good for veterans generally and it is not good for the people who appear as our clients. From a SSAFA point of view, we are really cautious about it. What we have told you today is about the fact that, if you assess provision and say, "Will it make any difference?" the best start point is to say, "Is it worth pushing?"

Q155 Nigel Mills: Can I just follow up on that quickly? Are you saying you would rather we abandon this report and said there is nothing here for us to find, and did not recommend anything?

Lady Hermon: I do not think that is quite what he said.

Colonel Gordon: What I said was it would be worth doing a good assessment of existing provision, against the issues and problems that can occur, and to ask if there are any gaps, how those gaps are best filled, and whether the implementation of the Covenant with the caveats that we have just talked about immediately previously actually make a difference and make for a better outcome for our clients.

Lady Hermon: What is so interesting is, in fact, one of the main issues that was raised with us in evidence was housing. As you explained, quite correctly, it is different in Northern Ireland, where we have the Housing Executive.

Q156 Nigel Mills: Can I just ask you one question on where there is a difference, in that service-leavers can get funding to study for a first degree in England, Wales and Scotland, but I do not think that currently exists in Northern Ireland? Is that right?

Colonel Gordon: I am not aware of any serviceleaver coming to us and raising it as an issue, so I do not know the answer to that. I am sorry; I do not know.

Q157 Nigel Mills: That might be one area where there is still a difference in Northern Ireland perhaps compared to elsewhere, but you are not aware of anything similar to that-any other areas where perhaps access to public services or charitable support is weaker in Northern Ireland than anywhere else.

Brian Maguire: Can I just come back on your earlier point, not to disagree with Richard, but just to say also that I actually think that the work of the Committee potentially could be very useful. I am not saying that you are wasting your time or anything like that. It absolutely would not be for me to say that. You are focusing on issues that have clear relevance to our organisation and, in that respect, this can only be useful, because it looks like it is a fairly critical examination of all the matters that are relevant to how we operate in Northern Ireland. I just wanted to make that clear.

Q158 Nigel Mills: I just thought the way you were going with your previous comments suggested that you did not want this issue raised too high in prominence, in case it provoked a counterreaction from certain parties, and that our publishing a report that said, "This should be implemented", might just be the thing that triggered the very reaction you did not want.

Brian Maguire: From my point of view, it was not so much the work of this Committee but, if a particular issue was raised in a particular setting in Northern Ireland, that would have the potential to be polarising-and "polarising" would be a better word than "divisive"-and then I would worry about how we would move forward from that, on that particular issue, if that makes sense. It might draw a line in the sand and make it difficult for us to do something in the future, when currently it is not raising any issues.

Q159 Jack Lopresti: Mr Maguire, I am a member of the Legion; I am a Vice President of my local branch, but I remember being on the Bill Committee and being lobbied by the British Legion extensively about how important it was for the Covenant to be enshrined in law, recognised in statute or however you want to discuss the definition. There was even quite a bit of debate about how prescriptive it ought to be. I took that to be the view of the national Royal British Legion. Are you saying that definitely is not the view of the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland? I recognise the military covenant is to be enshrined in law or recognised in statute. Are you saying there should be an exemption for Northern Ireland, or the law of the land for the rest of the United Kingdom should not be enacted or enforced in Northern Ireland?

Brian Maguire: I am not saying that, because that is a political matter and that is for the politicians. What I am saying though is that, whilst the Legion quite rightly lobbied for this at national level-

Jack Lopresti: It was hugely important.

Brian Maguire: Hugely important. I am not going to disagree in any shape, form or fashion, but there was also a recognition within the Legion that Northern Ireland-and some people may tell you differently-is a very different place, with a particularly difficult history and its own unique set of sensitivities. There is a recognition within the Legion that the particular operating environment in Northern Ireland is different, and the bottom line is how we can operate best to meet the needs of our beneficiaries.

Jack Lopresti: Which I accept. Okay, it is political, and you could easily argue, and quite rightly, that it stands to politicians to have that debate and discussion. My understanding is that you cannot pick and choose what laws you wish to enforce fully or not so fully, given the circumstances in any particular area. Where do you draw the line in that case? We will continue with the debate and discussion.

Q160 Mr Benton: The legal aspect of that is an interesting point, but as a follow on from what you have been discussing, I would like to ask you, based on your experience of armed service charities, how they actually differ in terms of Northern Ireland and, say, other parts of the UK? Can you pinpoint any way that they differ? Is there a reduced provision in Northern Ireland? Are you in a position to quote any experience of that?

Brian Maguire: I would say, in a positive way, we differ in the extent to which we operate closely together. You have probably heard already in other evidence of a new Northern Ireland veterans’ forum that has been established that Richard cochairs. In that respect, we were always very closely connected anyway. We always spoke on a regular basis when we had to, and that is not always the case at national level, from my understanding. I would say, in a positive way, we operate much more closely together than elsewhere.

Colonel Gordon: The relationship between military charities does vary over the country as a whole. It is much closer and better in some places, as Brian says, and we have now established a veterans’ forum, with the idea-and this was partly in response to the question of the Covenant-that we would put together a booklet, and each of these major military charities would have a page in that booklet that would signpost people as to exactly how to get hold of them, where to go, contact numbers and all the rest of it, a page per charity. We would have it printed, if we can find something to pay for the printing, and then have it widely distributed in libraries, in doctors’ surgeries and waiting rooms, and everywhere where there is public access, where it would be a useful place to have it, so at least we can raise the awareness of what military charities are out there and what they do, amongst the public at large. That would be a very good thing to do.

Q161 Mr Benton: You are not aware and you said you could not quote examples or instances where, for want of a better phrase, differential treatment takes place in comparison with people in other parts of the UK. You are not in that position.

Colonel Gordon: By and large, the issues that clients bring forward to us and to the British Legion in Northern Ireland are pretty similar to the issues that they are bringing forward in other parts of the country. They tend to be to do with rent or replacement of white goods, or a fill of oil. It used to be a bag of coal and it is a fill of oil now, which is a rather more expensive proposition. It is relatively smallish things. You get the big cases as well. You get the ones that Brian talked about, where you have children involved, and you can provide breaks for children and things like that. We have had witness support schemes and all sorts of other things that we do as well. The day-to-day nittygritty client issues tend to be pretty similar across the country as a whole.

Brian Maguire: There would be some individual Legion services that are available in most parts of Great Britain, which are not available in Northern Ireland, but that is more down to demand. They are demandled. There is, for example, a handy van, poppyvantype service that the Legion provides in many parts of the United Kingdom. It was briefly trialled in Northern Ireland in partnership with another charity using unmarked vans, because of security concerns around having vans with poppy colours on them, which is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. Even with that, we found there was not a sufficient uptake of the service. It could be reviewed again in future, but that is maybe something that is a difference, in terms of a practical difference, in terms of how we operate. In general, the services that are available to veterans in mainland UK/Great Britain are also available from the British Legion in Northern Ireland.

Q162 Lady Hermon: I have a couple of points. From SSAFA’s point of view and from the Royal British Legion’s point of view, have the two of you identified specific gaps in the care of former military personnel, gaps that in fact your two organisations cannot fill and that perhaps Government action or activity could actually help? What could be improved? I am sure something could be improved for military personnel and their families in Northern Ireland. Oh my goodness; there is a hesitation.

Brian Maguire: I cannot point to anything. When we look at the services charity sector, if there is something that the Legion cannot help with, there will, in general, be somebody else there who can help. If we cannot meet the need or meet the service, we can refer to somebody who can meet it. We will always check and make sure-and we are doing this more and more now-that the statutory provision has been exhausted before we start using charitable funds. That was not always the case in the past.

Lady Hermon: Translate that for us.

Brian Maguire: Somebody, for example, might come to us and say, and it could be a caseworker coming along and putting in a form, as Richard mentioned earlier on, that "Somebody has died. They were in the service and can we pay for the funeral?" without checking to see if the statutory provision for a funeral had been exhausted first. In a simple sense, we would check that had been done first and, potentially if there was a shortfall, we might look at meeting it, but we would do a check, first of all, to make sure that person could not afford it themselves. What we usually find is, when a client comes to us, it might be with a particular need that seems immediately apparent to the caseworker, but then, when we start digging further, there are other needs there. In the past, we have probably been guilty to some extent as an organisation of putting a sticking plaster on the problem, moving on and giving the fill of oil, without really checking why the oil tank was empty in the first place. This is part of the changes that the Legion is currently undergoing, in that we are taking this much more holistic approach to how we deal with people, checking into what other means can be used to help them out and to get them back on their feet again.

Q163 Lady Hermon: Is there a followup when you have done all of that analysis, and perhaps you have paid for the oil on that one occasion? In six weeks’ time, do you follow up and does someone then go to see the family again?

Colonel Gordon: We would frequently have caseworkers who are going back, over and over and over again. That may be because the person may be living on their own. It is a befriending service as well, if you like. There will be followup visits, and there could be two, three, four or five. It could be spread over years as well so, yes, we stay closely in touch with people who have been clients, partly to see if they have any other issues.

Q164 Lady Hermon: When this Committee will be taking evidence, as we shortly will be taking evidence, from the local Health Minister-"local" in terms of local in Northern Ireland-Edwin Poots MLA, is there not any issue of healthcare for exservice personnel that we, as a Committee, should be raising with him?

Brian Maguire: Both SSAFA and the Royal British Legion sit on the Armed Forces Liaison Forum, which looks specifically at healthcare issues, but healthcare is not something that the Legion as an organisation gets heavily involved in. We are part of that forum, as all the major exservice charities are, and I am aware from my presence on that forum that there are some health issues, around things like IVF treatment and around things like provision for prosthetic limbs for exservice personnel. I am aware of those issues, but they are not issues for us, as a locally based charity in Northern Ireland, to deal with, but I am aware there are issues in that field.

Lady Hermon: That is very helpful, because we had received evidence to that effect.

Colonel Gordon: We will pay for IVF treatment for injured service personnel as well, on a countrywide basis.

Lady Hermon: That is really interesting.

Q165 David Simpson: The question I was going to ask, Chairman, has already been covered, but just on another point, Brian: in relation to the British Legion and fundraising, where on the league table-and maybe it is putting you on the spot with this one-does Northern Ireland come in, when it comes to fundraising the amounts of money, as opposed to the rest of the United Kingdom?

Brian Maguire: I can only answer that anecdotally. I know £1.3 million was raised from the poppy appeal last year. That is 201112. I know anecdotally that that is very high per capita, compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. Also interestingly-and I appreciate this is the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee-€247,000 was raised in the Republic of Ireland in the same period, which I think is also significant. It shows there is a level of support throughout the island of Ireland for the exservice community.

Oliver Colvile: There is significant support for the retired former armed services community in both Northern and Southern Ireland as well.

Lady Hermon: The poppy appeal.

Brian Maguire: In terms of the poppy appeal, the Irish poppy appeal is dealt with distinctly from the UK poppy appeal, I think because of Charity Commission guidelines and legislation in the Republic. It is organised distinctly and the monies are spent locally, in the Republic of Ireland. Last year, €247,000 was raised in the Republic of Ireland poppy appeal, and £1.3 million in Northern Ireland.

Colonel Gordon: In SSAFA, we do not have the poppy appeal. We have to fundraise in whatever ways we can, which are all the ways that we all fundraise, with bridge lunches, speakers at events and stuff like that. The only thing that sets us apart from the rest of Great Britain is that we cannot use people in uniform to help with our fundraising. If you go to any other part of GB, they will use cadets in uniform with collecting tins on special occasions and stuff like that. Clearly we cannot and we do not do that.

Q166 Kate Hoey: Can I just ask why? Is that because you think they will be at risk?

Colonel Gordon: Yes.

Kate Hoey: You just assume that they would be at risk.

Brian Maguire: I think it may be military policy as well. I cannot be sure of that, but I think it may be policy.

Q167 Kate Hoey: It would be very helpful to clarify exactly, because we keep being told that Northern Ireland is this normal, wonderful place again, and then things like this happen all the time. No one seems to want to do the reality of making it normal, because there are security concerns. We cannot have it both ways.

Colonel Gordon: There are places where you could do it but, if it is a blanket issue, we have to say we do not do it.

Brian Maguire: Just in relation to the earlier point, by way of a comparison between those figures, Royal British Legion membership-because we are also a membership organisation-in Northern Ireland is almost 14,000, and there are approximately 700 in the Republic of Ireland. The exservice/veterans community in the Republic of Ireland is believed to be around 50,000 and, in Northern Ireland, I understand, it is around 150,000, just for comparison purposes.

Q168 Jack Lopresti: Since we announced our inquiry, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland has been having a series of meetings with the Northern Ireland parties and representations from military charities like yourselves. What involvement have you had with that, with meetings with the Minister of State?

Brian Maguire: We have both been present at those round-table discussions.

Q169 Jack Lopresti: Has there been any progress made? What are you expecting to get out of it, as far as being able to help you deliver your services?

Colonel Gordon: It has more been information-passing. It has been updating on where we are. It is a bit like what I and Brian referred to earlier, which is trying to say what we all do, what the provision is-like the first questions we were asked this afternoon-so that everybody understands. We had the Minister of State from the MOD over about three weeks ago, Northern Ireland Office Ministers and people like that, and the military as well. It has more been information-passing than anything more concrete.

Jack Lopresti: It is establishing where you are to begin with.

Colonel Gordon: Yes.

Q170 Jack Lopresti: Will there be further meetings like that?

Brian Maguire: Yes; further meetings are planned.

Q171 Lady Hermon: Not very long ago, we took evidence on this particular issue from the MOD, and we were told that, in fact, there would be a meeting at Number 10 to assess any shortfall in the implementation of the military covenant in terms of Northern Ireland, and that, if there were shortfalls, they would be addressed. Were you aware of any meeting in Number 10? Were you invited to any meeting in Number 10? Did you have an input at all into that assessment?

Brian Maguire: I personally was not, but it is probably above my pay grade, to be honest.

Lady Hermon: Not at all. You are the area commander for the island of Ireland.

Brian Maguire: Area manager, but the Director General of the Royal British Legion sits on the Covenant Reference Group. I would suspect, if anyone was going to be involved in that sort of meeting, the Director General would have been invited. I do not know if he was or not, but I suspect it sits more at his level.

Q172 Lady Hermon: Would he-presuming it is a gentleman-not feed down that information to you?

Brian Maguire: Quite possibly, but I have not seen that yet.

Colonel Gordon: I am in the same position.

Q173 Lady Hermon: That is a bit of a disappointment. Can I just come back to one little point, which I just want clarification on? In the Royal British Legion restructuring, did I understand you correctly to say that, in fact, there was going to be a onestop shop, if I could call it that, in Belfast?

Brian Maguire: Yes.

Lady Hermon: We did receive evidence about Edinburgh, which has its own onestop shop as well.

Brian Maguire: Veterans’ First.

Q174 Lady Hermon: We had not heard it mentioned anywhere else. When can we expect to see this in Belfast?

Brian Maguire: The Pathway for Growth programme that the Legion is currently undergoing has identified 16 area office locations, and Belfast is one of them. We are in the early stages. We have yet to open our first office: it may be in Leeds; it may be in Liverpool. The premises have been identified. Belfast will be in year two of that programme. It will happen, but Belfast will be in year two of that programme. This is year one. The actual structure around the changed ways of working will actually be coming into play this year, probably from July or August onwards.

That will include, for example, a national call centre, which is based in Cardiff, operating seven days a week, 12 hours a day, with trained professionals taking calls-a national UKwide freephone number, and hopefully also a number that will operate in the Republic of Ireland, on the same basis. That will enable people to contact the Legion, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, because traditionally our offices have been basically ninetofive offices. A lot of our offices in the past, traditionally, have been in outoftown locations, which are not easy to get to. The whole idea is putting our offices in a prime location, where people can see where you are. They can walk in and get assistance, there and then. If we cannot help them, we can point to them towards someone who can help them.

We are going to have a knowledge base established-work is already well underway on that-so that every time somebody comes in touch with us, whether that is by walking into an office, through the internet, which will also be improved in terms of access, or through the contact centre, we will have a record of that. If they walk in again six months or six years later, we will still have that record. We will know what happened to that person and what help they got and where they went to get that help.

Q175 Lady Hermon: Without going into any of the details about the security arrangements for the particular venue in Belfast, you sound very relaxed and very confident that having a Royal British Legion reference point for exmilitary personnel in the centre of Belfast will work.

Brian Maguire: To some extent, I would say it is already working, given what we have already said about the existing premises. Do I have concerns about a more highprofile location? Yes, I would have some concerns about that, not so much from a staff point of view, but from the point of view of the beneficiaries-the clients. Would they be comfortable walking into such a location in Belfast? That is something that I am talking to my people about, in terms of how we take this concept forward for Northern Ireland.

Q176 Lady Hermon: Yes, but the internet is of course a very useful way to deal with that or to address those concerns.

Brian Maguire: Absolutely.

Lady Hermon: That is really fascinating. Thank you so much.

Colonel Gordon: The offices currently are besides St Anne’s Cathedral in Talbot Street. Actually, there is a lit sign outside the door that says "war memorial", because there is a war memorial on display on the ground floor. So far, that has not produced any reaction at all.

Q177 Naomi Long: First of all, can I say thank you both for coming today and also for the work you do for veterans in my constituency as well? It is very much appreciated. May I also apologise for the fact that I was detained somewhere else and was late? I just want to clarify something; perhaps it was clear at the beginning of your evidence, but I just want to clarify it for my own understanding. You seem basically to be saying that there are no gaps, in terms of meeting the needs of service personnel in Northern Ireland, which you are concerned about. Are they just the gaps that you would meet in your particular roles, that you are able to fulfil without engaging with the Executive or so on, or is that in general, and are you aware of gaps that the Executive would have responsibility for? I am not entirely clear which of the two you mean.

Brian Maguire: We did make reference to this earlier. I have an awareness of gaps in some of the healthcare provision for certain treatments, which may or not be available in Northern Ireland, which would be available elsewhere to the exservice community. Yes, you are right in what you are saying. From the Legion’s perspective certainly, in our day-to-day work, our breadandbutter work, if you like, on a daily basis, we are not coming across any brick walls that we could say would not be there if the client was living in Birmingham or in Edinburgh or Cardiff or any other part of the United Kingdom.

Q178 Naomi Long: While you have identified that there are gaps in health-you have mentioned that-you have not identified those in other areas, such as housing, education or other places. It would be mainly health.

Brian Maguire: Housing, I suppose, is a difficult issue, in that I am aware that, in certain parts of mainland UK, points are awarded for exservice members to get them on the housing ladder. The quality of that housing might be an issue, from what I can gather anecdotally, but that is not the case in Northern Ireland. There are informal unofficial routes that can be taken. Some may say it should not be informal; it should not be unofficial, but the fact is there are established routes, there are established contacts, so we can make inquiries on behalf of clients, if they are having difficulties getting housing. We also have a scheme, which is very successful, which involves our potentially paying the first month’s deposit, but also a deposit guarantee bond, where we will guarantee the landlord, should the person default, that the Legion will meet that cost. Most landlords, not all, will take that. As long as they get that in writing, most will accept that, and that means the client does not have that financial outlay to start with, because the Legion is acting as guarantor.

Q179 Naomi Long: It was just really for my own benefit, because I was slightly confused about the differentiation between barriers that you would meet in providing the services that you provide, and then barriers that you would be aware of that armed services personnel might meet themselves, but which would not fall within your remit, in terms of delivery.

Colonel Gordon: This is what comes out from when the caseworker does his assessment and goes through this sixpage form, which is quite complex. If there are issues being flagged up there that we know we cannot deal with, the first thing we have to do is try to find a way of signposting them, but there may well be, as in all parts of the country, issues where politically people are unhappy with the provision or the lack of something. That is always going to be the case.

Q180 Dr McDonnell: Could I thank you for your evidence? I have certainly been inspired by it, and the openness and honesty with which you have approached the subject and, equally as Naomi, for all the good work you do. Certainly the work you do on the welfare front is very important. I was a GP for much of my life and I had quite a bit of overlap with some of your clients, as patients. To go back to another angle on the question I asked earlier about funding, are there any links with the British Departments of any consequence? You touched on that a couple of times there, or do you steer clear of them intentionally in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Gordon: From a SSAFA point of view, we do not have any links, but then we go out of our way to describe ourselves as being not a campaigning or a lobbying organisation. We are a caseworking organisation and we deal with the issues in a nonjudgmental way that come in front of us. We do not go and knock on the doors of Government Departments to say, "Why aren’t you providing this?"

Q181 Dr McDonnell: Not even the Ministry of Defence?

Colonel Gordon: Not even the Ministry of Defence.

Q182 Dr McDonnell: Is there anything you would like to see put in place or are you satisfied with that arrangement?

Colonel Gordon: It would always open to us, and we would probably do it through SSAFA’s head office in London, which has got daily links into the Ministry of Defence, if we had a major issue that we felt could be helped in that way. I was in SSAFA’s central office yesterday, and I said I was coming to meet the Committee today, and asked, "Are there any big issues that it would be helpful for me to raise?" The biggest one, they said, which was not a Northern Ireland issue at all, was that last year there was a report on the workings of the military covenant that has not yet been debated and it is highly aspirational. If we could have less of the "hope to" and "intend to" and "might" and more of the "do", then the Covenant-and that then does bounce back to us-would actually have a bit more focus, as to what it was actually setting out to do.

Brian Maguire: Again as I mentioned earlier, I understand that the Armed Forces Liaison Forum is chaired by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and we have a seat on that. I attend the meeting. I think it is appropriate that the Legion are represented there, even though their core business is not something that we would normally concern ourselves with, but because of the nature of the other people present, I think it is appropriate that we are there.

In terms of the MOD-and again I mentioned this earlier-there is regular contact at multiple levels from a practical viewpoint; that can involve presentations to personnel who are about to leave the army, in terms of what provision you might be able to make for them. It could be presentations to the wives of serving soldiers, in terms of services available. It could be some advice clinics done behind the wire. It could be talking to the person in charge of transition to make him aware of our services and to arrange for future provision of presentations. That is ongoing, and I would say, in the past two years, the level of contact has increased exponentially. It is a very helpful and worthwhile level of contact now, for example, between ourselves and the 38 Brigade yesterday.

Colonel Gordon: If I could just come back actually-Brian has reminded me-we do not contact them on issues, but we contact them on broader things. In May, we are going to hear about the final footprint of the Territorial Army, and we expect there to be a fairly significant uplift in Northern Ireland for two reasons: a) we are extremely well recruited, and b) we have a very high level of retention as well. With the reduction in the regular forces and, therefore, the increased deployment of territorial forces, there is going to be an imperative on us to meet the families of those being deployed and to make them aware of what we are doing, which is back to this idea that we want to get together, so we actually have a way of saying to people, "Here is the range of welfare support that is available to you."

Q183 Dr McDonnell: Just very quickly, I was fascinated by one point where you were talking about the connection in Dublin and the removal of barriers there, which may have existed through a difficult period in history. Do you have any connectivity at all with the Government in Dublin in terms of the Legion? It is more the Legion I am thinking about.

Brian Maguire: Yes. It is informal, but it is there. It is very healthy and positive.

Q184 Dr McDonnell: The Government-both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister-attended in November in Belfast, and I know that the Irish Government are very keen to engage further. Obviously they are trying to do that without appearing intrusive.

Brian Maguire: There has been ongoing, very healthy contact with the Department of the Taoiseach, and not just on issues of welfare, but probably in fact more so on issues of remembrance, which again is another one of our pillars.

Q185 Dr McDonnell: That is really what I wanted to get to, because they are also very keen to look positively and creatively at the remembrance of the Somme and all of that. I welcome that.

Colonel Gordon: The time of the Queen’s visit demonstrated that very clearly.

Chair: We are way over time, but it has been an extremely interesting session, so thank you very much indeed for joining us. It was very valuable. Thank you.

Colonel Gordon: Are we allowed to circulate some bits and pieces before we go? This is just an update and also, because we have just rebranded, this is our new look.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Mr Peter Poole, Director of Strategic Planning & Partnerships, Combat Stress, and Colonel Paul Cummings, Director of Welfare, ABF the Soldiers’ Charity, gave evidence.

Chair: We will kick off straightaway. I think you sat in on the previous session, so there is no need for me to do an introduction as to what we are doing. It is very good of you to join us. I am sorry to keep you waiting. It was our fault for starting late. In view of the time, perhaps we could get straight into questions, if that is okay. Jack, would you like to kick off?

Q186 Jack Lopresti: Welcome. Thank you for coming. What are your views on the principles enshrined in the Armed Forces Covenant, and how would you like to see them specifically implemented in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Cummings: The principles are sound. It is important to the veteran community that the Covenant is enshrined and that the Covenant is enacted throughout the United Kingdom, wherever that might be, bearing it in mind that there is an acceptance that the political realities are going to cause some time delay for some of the issues that are involved in the Covenant to be able to be delivered in the way envisaged in that document originally.

Q187 Kate Hoey: Can I just follow on, Chairman, on that? We keep hearing about the political reality, but for those who have no problems with the political status of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, they are then being treated differently, because of the perceived political problem.

Colonel Cummings: I do not think they are, madam. In almost every respect, people are treated exactly the same, and there is enormous advantage for most veterans who care to decide to live and settle in Northern Ireland. Health and education spring to mind as being outstanding exemplars for the rest of the country. Where the equality issue may raise its head, in terms of ensuring that a veteran can have his life experience reflected in his point score for social housing, then that is an area that veterans understand that there are, at the moment, some difficulties in making sure of that.

What I would say is that, although in the Covenant some local authorities have said, yes, they will give a priority to veterans, what I do hear, time and time again, is veterans ringing me up to say, "I’ve been placed at the top of the waiting list, but there is no housing", so it actually makes no difference whatsoever. What I would say is that the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland is extremely responsive and does enable people to move into social housing probably just as quickly as they might in Surrey, Sussex or elsewhere.

Peter Poole: I have now listened to three different views about this and, quite honestly, what has been said throughout echoes my own views on it, or that indeed of Combat Stress.

Q188 Jack Lopresti: Just a minor point going back to our last witnesses, is it your understanding that the military covenant is enshrined in the law?

Peter Poole: I thought it was, but I might not be right. I did think it was. I would echo something that was said earlier, which is that the first annual report is yet to be debated in the House. I do have some misgivings about that, quite frankly; I think it should be.

Colonel Cummings: If I may, the view is that the reporting of the Covenant is enshrined in law, whereas not necessarily the totality of what the Covenant represents is enshrined in law. The Government must report progress and what has been achieved.

Q189 Oliver Colvile: What we should be pressing for is for it to be enshrined in law, frankly. That is what you are saying.

Colonel Cummings: Possibly.

Jack Lopresti: It is my understanding that it is. We can argue about the definition. I have heard people talk about it being "recognised in statute" or "enshrined in law".

Q190 Oliver Colvile: It is a bit like when we end up getting legislation wrong here and the judges interpret it in their own way. We need to tighten it a bit. In your opinion, what is the main reason why the Covenant is not being fully enforced in Northern Ireland, and do you hold to the view that Section 75 is the issue that is actually prohibiting that from happening, and that that is a problem?

Peter Poole: Section 75 probably does have something to do with it, but whether that is the main reason as to why it is not fully operable, if it is not fully operable, in Northern Ireland, I do not really think I am qualified to say. Your previous speakers were rather more involved in this area than indeed am I.

Colonel Cummings: I would just say that what we probably need to ensure through the delivery of the Covenant in Northern Ireland is a strong veterans’ forum, making its points through the Covenant Reference Group, if it identifies major issues. What I would say is I do not think, at any time, the Covenant Reference Group has had advised to them any major concerns coming from veterans in Northern Ireland.

Q191 Oliver Colvile: You think everybody is happy.

Colonel Cummings: I would not say that, but what we need to do is to give the veterans in Northern Ireland a stronger voice. I am a Director of Veterans Scotland. I sit on a number of COBSEO-which is the Confederation of Service Charities-groupings and, through that, we are able to exert a real influence on the way in which these things run. I am not convinced that in Northern Ireland we have got that same strong group of individuals who are able to represent concerns, if they believe their community is being disadvantaged.

Peter Poole: That is well said, because certainly Veterans Scotland does enable veterans’ issues to reach the Scottish Government, and I think that is important.

Q192 Kate Hoey: Do both of you in your organisations have Northern Ireland bodies? Are you based in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Cummings: No. I have a fundraising office in Northern Ireland, but my policy and direction is delivered centrally from one office in London by myself and five people. My experiences in Northern Ireland reflect time commanding a regiment, and then as a defence attaché south of the border in Dublin.

Peter Poole: We do. We have what we call a community outreach team, which is a number of clinicians and a welfare officer. We also have an office in the same building, in fact, as SSAFA and the British Legion in Belfast, which is manned permanently by three welfare support staff.

Q193 Nigel Mills: Mr Poole, in the evidence you sent to us, you said you would like to see Northern Ireland represented on the Covenant Reference Group. Who would you have in mind as representing Northern Ireland on that group?

Peter Poole: Frankly, I am not altogether sure that I am in a position to know just exactly who it should be. Nonetheless, I would like to see them represented on it. Were there to be an organisation similar to Veterans Scotland, then clearly the chairman of that would be perhaps the ideal person actually to sit that on that particular group.

Q194 Nigel Mills: You are not thinking it should be a member of the Northern Ireland Executive. Are you thinking it is more likely to be someone from the voluntary sector?

Peter Poole: Speaking personally, it probably should be someone from the voluntary sector, and I suspect my organisation would go down that line as well.

Q195 Dr McDonnell: I have just two very brief questions, one about what you get and one about what you give. Could you outline in a little more detail for us your role in Northern Ireland? Colonel Cummings, you have a head office in London; you have a fundraising office there. How strong a presence do you have, do you feel? What is your role and output?

Colonel Cummings: The way in which my charity works is exactly the same across the United Kingdom. We have regional fundraising offices, but all of our outreach is managed from my office in London, directly with the caseworking organisations, which are the link between ourselves and our clients. We rely enormously on SSAFA’s help and the Royal British Legion to identify the problem and then pass it to us, at our central office in London, to identify what funds can be provided to meet that need.

Q196 Dr McDonnell: They are in the frontline and you provide the financial backup.

Colonel Cummings: Absolutely.

Peter Poole: We are completely different, because we are an organisation that delivers treatment. From a Combat Stress perspective, if I do it in the widest possible sense, we are UKwide. We have three treatment centres for the delivery of in-patient treatment and we have, UKwide, 14 community outreach teams. One of those, a larger one, is in Northern Ireland, because it covers the whole of Northern Ireland. Those who require in-patient treatment and are veterans go across to Scotland, where we have a treatment centre. We have two other treatment centres, one in Surrey and one in Shropshire. It is the Scottish one to which our veterans go.

Q197 Dr McDonnell: How would I access that treatment centre?

Peter Poole: You can contact us in a number of different ways: by telephone in Northern Ireland or by approaching our helpline are two ways. Alternatively, you may refer yourself to the Royal British Legion or SSAFA, which will in turn push you through to us. We will then send one of our three welfare officers in Northern Ireland to visit you, to discuss with you your needs and to make an appreciation of your needs, be they welfare or, if they are clinical, then that person will then get a clinician along to come and see you as well. The clinician will decide whether or not you need in-patient treatment or whether we can provide out-patient treatment. That is the way the system works. That is our pathway of care.

Q198 Dr McDonnell: That is very useful. When you say "clinician", is that a psychiatrist or a psychologist?

Peter Poole: It is a community mental health nurse in Northern Ireland but, once they get to Scotland, it will be a psychiatrist or indeed a psychologist.

Q199 Dr McDonnell: Lastly, the same question I asked the earlier witnesses: do you get much financial support from the MOD or, indeed, from the Northern Ireland Executive?

Peter Poole: We do get some financial support from VSS. In fact, this year the award was rather better than last year. From the Ministry of Defence, we are actually remunerated for war pensioners who have a war pension of more than 30%, and for those whom the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency agree need treatment, they then fund the treatment in our centre and travel. You will be aware that the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme has no such provision, so there is actually a dwindling number of war pensioners. We also in England benefit from a National Health Service Commissioning Board contract, which provides in-patient care for 224 of the most seriously affected veterans.

Q200 Lady Hermon: Do you have a waiting list? If I were living in Northern Ireland and I could only go to Scotland-it seems that those in Northern Ireland go to Scotland. Because of our very special circumstances and the very prolonged Troubles that so many service personnel came through, and given they are now older and they still have great difficulty with their lives-increasing difficulty with their lives-is there a priority given by your organisation to allow access to the facilities in Scotland from Northern Ireland? How long would I have to wait? Is there a waiting list?

Peter Poole: You may have to wait up to four to six months for in-patient treatment, but you would get community treatment more quickly than that. In the meantime, you would be receiving in-patient treatment. Of course, the Northern Ireland Aftercare Service is also providing help alongside us, and we work very closely with them. We have to work closely with them, because we do not want to duplicate what is actually being delivered. We want to work closely with them to ensure that they will get treatment. When you talk about the 224, whether there is a waiting list and so on and so forth, of course that money from the NHS Commissioning Board does not extend to veterans in Northern Ireland, or indeed in Wales or in Scotland.

Q201 Lady Hermon: Because of the devolved issue of health.

Peter Poole: Absolutely. In Scotland, they decided that they would actually fund people going on that course from within NHS Scotland.

Q202 Lady Hermon: That is an issue we could follow up with our Health Minister, when he comes to the relevant session. That would be helpful.

Peter Poole: We do treat people as part of that programme from Northern Ireland, and indeed from Wales, but they are treated on the basis of charity, rather than on the basis of anybody actually financing.

Q203 Lady Hermon: Thanks; that is very helpful. In response to my colleague Dr McDonnell, across the way, could I just ask Colonel Cummings about the financial support that you receive from the Government or otherwise, because it is my understanding that, in Northern Ireland, there had been a grant in the past. I do think I wrote a letter supporting the continuation of the grant. Could you just tell the Committee the outcome of that? Do you still get funding from the Government?

Colonel Cummings: We have not had a grant this year. Historically, we had a sum of around £25,000 from the Northern Ireland Office, which is used to support veterans of Op Banner who have been disadvantaged through their service in the province, not necessarily people who are living in Northern Ireland but who, during their service in Northern Ireland, may have suffered injury, death or whatever. That money is used for that purpose and it is put in a restricted fund called the Northern Ireland Special Relief Fund.

Q204 Lady Hermon: The Northern Ireland Office did not make that-

Colonel Cummings: Not this year.

Q205 Lady Hermon: And the excuse given by the Northern Ireland Office?

Colonel Cummings: I am waiting for it at the moment.

Lady Hermon: Oh dear. Perhaps you would furnish the Committee with the excuse whenever you receive it. That is very disappointing news, because I know you do a lot of good work.

Q206 Mr Benton: To the previous witnesses I put the question about homelessness and alcoholism among former service personnel. It certainly appeared that we have heard from previous evidence that the extent of it is not quantified, but there is an acknowledgement that there is a problem. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on how this can be ascertained.

Colonel Cummings: I am probably your man, sir. I am a trustee of the principal service homeless charity, which is called Veterans Aid, which is based here in London, but has a reach across the United Kingdom. Peter and I also sit on something called the ExService Action Group on Homelessness, in which we identify problems and try to find solutions. Certainly in London, the Government through something called CHAIN collects all the statistics relating to homelessness. We know how many street homeless there are, and we do ask the question, "Are you a veteran?" The figure that comes out is about 4% of the street homeless are veterans. Very few of those are street homeless because they have no other option; I will leave it at that. That problem probably is similar across the major cities in the United Kingdom.

In the seven years that I have done this job, I am only aware of one or two requests for support for individuals who were street homeless in Belfast or in Northern Ireland elsewhere. What I would say is we clearly do not know how many individuals may not have a home of their own, but if we look at that across the United Kingdom in the whole sector of society, that is a problem for all young people.

The other issue you might have raised was prisons, and the Howard League has printed a report on that, which suggests service personnel are underrepresented in the prison population, with the exception of those committing crimes of violence and sexual offences. King’s College London has produced a lot of published reports on alcohol abuse, prison population and homelessness.

Q207 Mr Benton: Have you any thoughts or ideas of how the Committee might make recommendations in terms of actually assessing the extent of the problem, in relation to Northern Ireland, in comparison with the remainder of the UK?

Colonel Cummings: The real problem that we have across the UK is that no one does ask that question across the board, "Are you a veteran?" so there is nothing in the census to say how many veterans there are and where they are. We do surveys and we try to find it out, but we have no firm statistics. The other issue in Northern Ireland is there is still a perception by the veteran population that it is not a good thing to put your hand up and say, "I am a veteran", so I am not sure you would get the right figure anyway.

Q208 Lady Hermon: Because of the dangers attached to it even now.

Colonel Cummings: Perceived dangers, yes.

Q209 Lady Hermon: The real question I want to ask is really to elaborate on a point that you made, which was very striking indeed, and we have not received that evidence before, and that is we need the veterans’ voice in Northern Ireland to be much louder. I am summarising, but that was certainly what you were saying. That links in with the comment that you have made about homelessness. The difficulty with veterans making their voice louder in Northern Ireland is, I suggest to you, the concern that, if you put your hand up, even now, 15 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, even though we have had ceasefires and all the rest of it, there is still that perception and fear for service personnel and indeed their families to identify themselves with the armed services. Is that correct?

Colonel Cummings: That is correct, but there is a place for leadership in this, from all of the service charities working in Ireland, to make themselves available to the veterans community in secure ways. That can be through the internet and the rest of it, without facetoface contact or necessarily great detail on the individual, to identify where problems exist. I am quite sure that the Royal British Legion initiatives including, dare I say, the popin centre are going to help us identify what the issues are. Unless we have a strong forum, people are not going to go out and ask the right questions to be able to respond effectively.

Q210 Lady Hermon: So it is a stronger veterans’ forum. It is not that, in fact, you actually believe that veterans are sitting quietly there, but, if they were not afraid for their own safety, they would be demanding-every last woman and man-the implementation of the military covenant.

Colonel Cummings: I do not think so. I think the veteran population is enormously pragmatic. I think it is very realistic. I would just say that tonight I am going to my local Royal British Legion annual dinner, and I would suspect no one there will mention the Covenant. It is not of vital importance to the majority of veterans.

Q211 Lady Hermon: Just say that again. Did I mishear you? At your dinner tonight with the Royal British Legion, the Covenant, which I have to say the Prime Minister has made a huge issue of, will not be the talking point there.

Colonel Cummings: I do not think it will be. I think the Covenant is particularly valuable, and it is an enormously valuable tool to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged. The most important time for that is during transition from military to civilian life, because that is where the largest element of disadvantage is likely to lie. Once people have settled, I suspect, they get on with their lives.

Q212 Lady Hermon: How come, then, we have so many young and not so young exmilitary personnel of all the services who end up, terribly sadly, in prison? We have all these very good organisations. We have taken evidence this afternoon from the Royal British Legion, which I think does an exceeding amount of good work, as do Combat Stress, the ABF, Help the Heroes and all of these great organisations. Why are the service personnel falling between all of these stools?

Colonel Cummings: I would just say there has been a lot of publicity, which is not necessarily backed up by sound statistical data. When the Ministry of Defence shared National Insurance numbers with the Prison Service, the number of veterans in prison, as a percentage, is very, very small, and certainly less than half what the POA had indicated that they thought it was.

Lady Hermon: Very, very small-I think you used "very" twice there?

Colonel Cummings: 4%.

Peter Poole: There are a number in the criminal justice system, and we have to be really careful here not to get mixed up between the criminal justice system and those who are actually in prison. I sat on our prison inreach committee, which was looked after by NOMS, and certainly we were very clear that, when there was a study done, the numbers were nowhere near those that the Prison Officers Association-or NAPO I think it was actually-had actually said were likely.

Q213 Lady Hermon: Again, to quantify somehow for us that very small 4% who are in prison, Mr Poole, you have now said that these must not be confused with those exmilitary personnel who have become involved in the criminal justice system. What percentage do you think are in the criminal justice system?

Peter Poole: I do not know, but that is probably likely to be the figure that is nearer NAPO’s 10% or so. Again, we do not know, because nobody shares their National Insurance numbers with each other, and so the net result is that it is very difficult to find out. What we do, and what is being done a lot now in custody suites, is that people are being asked whether or not they have been in the services, but there are still quite a lot of people who, be it in Northern Ireland or be it elsewhere, will not admit to having been in the services anyway, because being in that position is actually the last straw in terms of what they would like to be, in many cases.

Lady Hermon: It is very humiliating, I am sure. Thank you so much.

Q214 Naomi Long: Thank you very much for your evidence so far. One of the areas that we have been exploring is about the work of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish (Home Service) Regiment Aftercare Service, and it has been highlighted in the evidence by a number of people we have received so far that that is a very valuable service. Do you have any interaction with that service yourselves as an organisation or any view as to how it is valued by the armed services community in Northern Ireland?

Colonel Cummings: I have almost daily contact with the Aftercare Service and with the regimental headquarters of the two regiments concerned. It is hugely valued. It is hugely valued by the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish (Home Service) Regiment, and also it is hugely valued by the veterans community in Ireland, which believes that this reflects a real commitment by Government to support individuals who have made a significant sacrifice over time. The veteran community, I have no doubt, would very much like to see the support that is given to the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Home Service, through the Aftercare Service, extended to them. You heard a view earlier that maybe that is not appropriate, but I am sure they would like to have it because, without doubt, it is enormously effective and hits the mark in many ways.

Q215 Naomi Long: One proposal that we have heard is that the Aftercare Service would be extended to all veterans residing in Northern Ireland. You have said that you are aware that there would be a desire for that among other veterans. Has that possibility been discussed or explored, and are you aware of any genuine impediments to that happening?

Colonel Cummings: I have discussed it on occasion. The impediment is that there is a price that goes with it. The current service being provided by the voluntary sector-the Royal British Legion, SSAFA Forces Help, Combat Stress and a host of other charities-is meeting the need and meeting the need very effectively, in parallel to the way in which it is delivered elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Q216 Naomi Long: Obviously cost is one element. One of the other suggested impediments may be that the service itself is too tailored specifically to the UDR and RIR (Home Service) to be able to be useful to other groups. Is that a concern you would share or do you think that that just is not a concern at all?

Colonel Cummings: The suit certainly fits the people who it is targeted at now and, I believe, with some minor adaptation it could meet the needs of the veteran population as a whole, because that particular community do have specific issues, but most of those issues are coping with the crises of life, which are shared, in many cases, by other veterans.

Q217 Naomi Long: Just a final question on the Aftercare Service: do you feel that it could and indeed should be extended to cover former or serving service personnel who reside in the Republic of Ireland?

Colonel Cummings: Again, I do not think it is needed, because the voluntary provision in the Republic is very good. SSAFA and the Legion have a reasonable footprint. Certainly when I was working down there, I could get a caseworker to visit a client very quickly, without a problem. It is important, and Peter will want to speak on this, that the Aftercare Service has a real remit in terms of mental health.

Peter Poole: Thanks for that. I feel very strongly about the Aftercare Service, because what it does do is provides an easy route in for people who are suffering from mental health problems very much, in fact, the same as is available elsewhere. Some of it is through the National Health Service in England and in Scotland as well. What it does do is provides a route by which a veteran does not have to feel that he or she is going to be stigmatised by actually coming forward, and that is a real problem with the mental health issue. There is more of a stigma to mental health, or people feel that there is, and I think it excellent that they can actually go into a system where they do not have to identify, right from the outset, that they are suffering with any sort of mental health problem.

Most people do have a significant difficulty with coming forward, and I think it is worse in Northern Ireland than it is perhaps elsewhere. By being able to get in touch with the Aftercare Service, with being able to just be seen as a normal veteran, they actually can go further.

Q218 Naomi Long: Can I just come back on something you have just said? You said that people have difficulty in coming forward and that that is worse in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK. Is that specifically in relation to mental health or more generally identifying themselves as veterans?

Peter Poole: I think both mental health and just identifying themselves as veterans as well.

Q219 Naomi Long: You also mentioned the stigma, so I suppose there are two parts to follow up on this. Do you believe that the stigma of mental health issues is greater within the veterans’ community than in the general population, and do you believe that there is more of a stigma in the Northern Ireland context than in the rest of GB around mental health issues specifically?

Peter Poole: In any organisation where you work really closely together with others, and particularly in something that has a macho background, as do the forces, then it is particularly difficult in the forces generally. In Northern Ireland, where people know each other more closely than perhaps they do elsewhere, there is a bigger stigma.

Naomi Long: I appreciate that. It is just that general suicide prevention and mental health issues are things that I have done a lot of work on in my own constituency, so I am conscious that there is still a huge stigma attached and a barrier. I was just interested in how that affected veterans specifically, as opposed to the more general population, so that has been very helpful. Thank you.

Q220 Jack Lopresti: How much work do you do with the Northern Ireland Executive Departments in relation to your duties in looking after veterans?

Colonel Cummings: My answer would be very similar to that which you heard earlier, and that is very little-none. Having said that, I have no direct link into the Scottish Assembly, other than through Veterans Scotland, and neither do I with the Welsh Assembly. Broadly speaking, the veteran community gets on with its business very effectively without a need to go to Government at whatever level.

Q221 Jack Lopresti: We have spoken about the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland in relation to other parts of the United Kingdom. Would you say that, because the entire Executive would not necessarily be on side, your work is any way impeded or hampered by that fact?

Colonel Cummings: No, I would not. I go back to the point that actually services in Northern Ireland are so much better than they are in other places.

Q222 Mr Benton: Again, I would like to go back to public services and charities in general in Northern Ireland. Have you made any comparison at all of the shortcomings in Northern Ireland in terms of charitable support, as compared to mainland UK? Have you any comparative exercises in existence? I hope I am making myself clear in the sense that the whole raison d’être for our inquiry into this is that, in general terms, there is a deficiency in provision, both in terms of charitable availability, the carrying out of the convention and so on and so forth, and its weaknesses in Northern Ireland. I am coming at it from a general point of view. Is there anything at all in your spheres of activity that you could point to and say, "Look, here is a definitive weakness in the system, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, compared to the rest of the country"? I know it is a sweeping general question but really, fundamentally, that is what the Committee is concerned about. We are trying to deliberate on how we can best tackle it. Obviously that demands comments from experts in the field, such as yourselves.

Peter Poole: From a Combat Stress point of view, we would like to have a closer relationship-and perhaps it is an answer to both your questions actually-with the Government, because what we are finding is that, in comparison to veterans in England and veterans in Scotland, veterans in Northern Ireland are not getting the same delivery of services that the others get. There is just no doubt about it.

We do help veterans who need the sixweek programme. We do clearly help veterans who are war pensioners, who can come across, but there are a lot of others who find it more difficult, because they might have to pay their own travel expenses to get across to Scotland or indeed to any of our other treatment centres. There are differences in the ways that we are able to help veterans who are resident in Northern Ireland. Also of course, there is the difference between the Home Service Force and those veterans who are regular forces but of a wider scope; clearly they are not war pensioners, so they do have to pay their own way to get to treatment.

There are differences, and we would like to talk much more closely with the National Health Service there. For instance, in England and Scotland, we are very close with the National Health Service. Indeed, in some areas we have collaborations, in fact moving as far as partnerships, with the NHS. This enables us to provide veterans with the best care that they can get, be it from the National Health Service or from us. A lot of people who come into the National Health Service are signposted towards Combat Stress. Similarly, a number of people who approach us for care, we may well signpost to the National Health Service. We do not have that sort of relationship at the moment in Northern Ireland.

Q223 Lady Hermon: Have you asked for it? Forgive me asking the obvious thing. Has Combat Stress asked for a meeting with the present Health Minister and has he declined? I would be astonished if he has.

Peter Poole: We have a partnership arrangement with the Departments of Health of all four nations. We have not yet managed to progress that. Now, to be fair, that was only signed in January or February of this year. Previously, I have been and spoken to representatives of the First Minister’s Office to ask whether or not we could get stronger relationships, but we have not actually got any further with that at the moment.

Q224 Lady Hermon: You have not got any further with stronger relationships with the First Minister, but you do have co-operation from the Department of Health.

Peter Poole: Neither we nor they have explored that relationship since the signing of the partnership arrangement.

Q225 Lady Hermon: In February of this year?

Peter Poole: It was either early February or late January.

Q226 Lady Hermon: The current Assembly has been sitting, if my memory serves me correctly, since May of 2007, so we have had almost eight years of devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and Combat Stress has only now signed an agreement, this year, with the Department of Health.

Peter Poole: We did have a previous agreement. I am afraid I am not party to what was written in that particular one, but I do know about this one, because I was party to it.

Colonel Cummings: If I can come back to the original question, what we see different in Northern Ireland is that, in Scotland and in Wales, we are seeing initiatives and ideas coming from the Assemblies, of reaching out to the veterans community, identifying themselves issues that they feel need to be addressed. We are not seeing that in Northern Ireland, where there is almost a vacuum at the moment. That probably needs to be addressed and, again, that is something this specialist forum could probably work with Government to identify need, and get the initiative coming from Government, rather than necessarily from the third sector.

Q227 Lady Hermon: I have to say, and I am not in the gentleman’s party at all, but I would know, off the top of my head, that the First Minister, who is also the Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Health Minister, who happens to be a member of his party, would be very sympathetic and very supportive of the security services.

Peter Poole: Maybe we should push harder, but I think that Paul Cummings is right when he says that we are seeing initiative coming towards some of us in other places. That is a fair comment.

Lady Hermon: That is a fact. The initiatives are coming from other regions in the UK, but they are absent in Northern Ireland. I am hugely disappointed to hear that, I must say, and surprised as well.

Q228 Jack Lopresti: Since we announced our inquiry, there have been meetings with the Minister of State, various political parties and organisations like yourselves. Have you been involved in those meetings?

Colonel Cummings: Personally not, although through COBSEO, which is the Confederation of Service Charities, on which my Chief Executive sits as an executive member, then yes.

Q229 Jack Lopresti: Do you feel there will be progress as a result of these meetings?

Colonel Cummings: I am sure there will.

Q230 Jack Lopresti: Anything specific?

Colonel Cummings: I am not up to speed on those.

Peter Poole: It is the same with me; I am not involved with those. I am sure that there will be progress, because otherwise people will not continue to go to the meetings, to be quite honest.

Jack Lopresti: There is no point having them unless something happens as a result.

Colonel Cummings: I know that the Chairman of COBSEO, Air Vice Marshal Stables, is looking for the Covenant Reference Group documents to be really positive, and identify real progress being made in the whole Covenant area.

Q231 Dr McDonnell: My question was relationships and we have covered them fairly well. The only thing, Chair, I would say is, in keeping with my colleague Lady Hermon and with Naomi, I would be very happy to facilitate a meeting with the Minister directly, if that was helpful. I see absolutely no difficulty. I would like to facilitate the work. I was a GP for a lifetime and I am very conscious of the work you are doing and how useful it is. I do think that Edwin Poots would literally jump through hoops for you.

Peter Poole: We would be delighted with that.

Dr McDonnell: Something is falling down somewhere. We have to get together.

Chair: Indeed, that would be useful. It has been a very interesting session. Thank you very much for joining us.

Prepared 16th July 2013