Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 24 April 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr David Anderson

Mr Stephen Hepburn

Lady Hermon

Kate Hoey

Naomi Long

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

Ian Paisley

David Simpson


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of the Department for Social Development NI, and Edwin Poots MLA, Minister of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety NI, gave evidence.

Q232 Chair: Ministers, you are very welcome; thank you for joining us. As you know, we are looking into the Armed Forces Covenant and its application in particular in Northern Ireland, so we are very grateful to you for coming here to talk to us and give us the benefit of your experience. It is possible there will be a vote at some stage. If there is, I will have to suspend the Committee for 15 minutes and then reconvene. It may or may not happen; I do not know. May I invite you to make very brief opening statements, if you wish?

Nelson McCausland: Thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to speak to the Committee about the Armed Forces Covenant. Ex-service personnel and their families can face housing challenges in particular. Having lived in service accommodation in a variety of locations during their career, they may not have a strong connection with any particular area. They may be leaving the services because of illness or disability and they will probably be facing a drop in income. It is my intention that, where service personnel and their families have to vacate military-provided housing, they are not placed at a disadvantage compared with other applicants.

Personnel returning to Northern Ireland after several years of service in Great Britain or elsewhere should be treated on the same basis as any other local person. Exservice applicants who are not originally from Northern Ireland but wish to settle there, after being based in the Province, should be able to do so. Service personnel who are leaving the forces because of serious injury or disability and who need access to adapted social housing must have their applications assessed as quickly as possible and can expect to receive an appropriate level of priority under the rules for the allocation of social housing in Northern Ireland.

I am also anxious to ensure that providers of social housing in Northern Ireland give sympathetic treatment to surviving partners of former service personnel who have been killed in action. Where such family members have had service accommodation made available to them on a temporary basis, this should not disadvantage them if they apply for social housing. I know that exservice personnel, in common with others with an institutional background, are at particular risk of homelessness and rough sleeping. For this reason, housing providers must give careful consideration to the potential vulnerability of exservice applicants and bear in mind that some injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, may not be apparent at the date of discharge but can lead to problems in sustaining housing at a later stage.

I appreciate that in putting the needs of the nation, the armed forces and other people before their own, service men and women forgo some of the rights enjoyed by civilians. They are therefore entitled, at the very least, to be treated fairly and with respect. That is the basis of my Department’s approach to the provision of housing services to exservice personnel.

Chair: Thank you very much. Mr Poots?

Edwin Poots: The armed forces are a more significant issue in Northern Ireland than perhaps anywhere else given the circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland, where armed forces personnel can still come under threat at a local level. Therefore, whenever armed forces personnel come back to Northern Ireland they are operating in different circumstances than in other parts of the United Kingdom, and the consequences can be very dangerous for them. We do have a huge number of people who have taken up the load, particularly in the reservists, and Northern Ireland is contributing twice as many reservists per head of population than elsewhere. The task of ensuring that we do provide appropriate care for them is a very important one. That is also something we have to do with discrete care, given what I outlined at the very outset.

So in all that we have done, in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, we have sought to provide the high standards that have been outlined within the Army Covenant without its actual implementation. We are looking for outcomes here, as opposed to means, in our delivery of service. I am very happy to take questions as to how we seek to do that.

Q233 Ian Paisley: You are both very welcome, gentlemen. Could I ask something just off the back of that? This flows from what Mr Poots has just told the Committee. There will be many people within the Department of Health who are, and potentially in the future will be, reservists in the new arrangements that are in place for our Ministry of Defence. Are you going to put anything in place to allow those reservists to get time off to do their duty for their nation and also to go to camps and enjoy and participate in the work that they are volunteering to do?

Edwin Poots: That already is in place. We currently have 30 reservists in the hospital in Helmand, which is one sixth of the total personnel that exist in that facility. They are out there serving and supporting all of the troops who are out there from the allied forces. So there is a significant contribution made by the Northern Ireland armed forces already in Afghanistan through the health service. We are delighted to do that because, first of all, our staff want to do it and we want to support them in doing it. Secondly, there are huge benefits for the Northern Ireland health service in that the levels of trauma that will be witnessed in Afghanistan will allow them to maximise their expertise and will give them real life experiences of how to deal with some of the most critical and difficult situations, which can then be applied at home to other trauma situations that arise.

Q234 David Simpson: You are very welcome, gentlemen, to the Committee. I have what is surely a twofold question but will deal with the first point. Has there been, up to date, a collective decision within the Executive of how to implement the Covenant in Northern Ireland?

Nelson McCausland: There has not been. I think Members will be aware of the reasons for that.

Q235 Lady Hermon: It would be helpful for all the Committee Members for you to elaborate a little bit upon what you actually mean.

Nelson McCausland: The difficulty is that in Northern Ireland we have a five-party mandatory coalition. I know Members here will have some knowledge of the difficulties of a two-party coalition; a five-party one is somewhat more problematic. There are people within that Executive who would have a very, very different view from the one that I hold regarding the armed forces. They would have a very negative view about the British Army and therefore, for that particular reason, refuse almost to engage on these issues. That is regrettable because, as my colleague has already pointed out, members of the armed forces provide-at great personal sacrifice, I believe-a wonderful service for our country. That view is not shared by some other members of the Executive from an Irish Republican background. Therefore, there is difficulty in getting agreement. Personally, I think that the way forward on this is much more through individual Departments delivering for exservice personnel, rather than trying to resolve something that I do not think will be resolved, as those who hold a different view will not change that view. Therefore, the relevant Departments, whether in regard to housing or in regard to health, should move forward on that basis. It is regrettable that it has to be done on that basis, but in practical terms that is where we are.

Q236 David Simpson: I have a follow up that maybe Edwin can take. It is interesting that you mentioned dealing with it on an individual basis. Being diligent Ministers and having very diligent staff, you will of course have read the minutes from our last meeting, where we had evidence from the British Legion and from SSAFA. They made the comment that they felt that implementing the Covenant in Northern Ireland would seem to be maybe a backwards step, or could cause them difficulties because of the political sensitivities. Could both of you explain what your Departments are doing? From memory, and the Chair can keep me right, I think they talked about filling in the gaps of the Covenant that may not be fully implemented in legislation or law in Northern Ireland, but it could be done in a way that would really be in line with here. Do you want to reflect on that or give us your opinions on that?

Edwin Poots: Certainly, we have done a number of things. The Armed Forces Liaison Forum is something that has been very important. All of our health trusts and ambulance trusts are represented on that forum, and we also have people from the armed forces themselves represented, and all the soldiers’ charities-SSAFA, ABF, British Legion-MoD, veterans, Combat Stress and our own Department. The purpose of that is to go through issues that may affect military personnel and veterans, and the impact it would have if we did not handle those well. Therefore, with all of the trusts, there is the ability to respond to that. There are liaison personnel within trusts to deal with people and deal with the issues that arise at a more local level, so you do not have to wait for a quarterly meeting. Within each trust there is a person there who will deal with Army personnel. So the Army Benevolent Fund people will be able to talk to the person in the trust where it arises that there is a difficulty-and hopefully those are minimised-in terms of the treatment path identified for a member of the Army or indeed a veteran.

Q237 Naomi Long: It is good to see you both here. You have mentioned that there is no agreement at the Executive, which we are aware of. I think you were intimating that there had been no discussion because it would have been pointless, essentially, to raise the issue in the Executive where no agreement could be reached. Would you be aware, routinely, of what other Ministers are doing who may be implementing the Armed Forces Covenant within their own Department? There are obviously some Ministers who do not share the objections to doing this. Would you have any way of knowing that that was happening or monitoring that, or is that something that you accept, effectively, it is almost better not to raise, in the sense that, if it was raised, it would then become an issue for others?

Nelson McCausland: As far as I am aware, the two Departments that would have the biggest involvement would be the two Departments here today. Not only are we from one party, and therefore do talk to each other-

Edwin Poots: Occasionally.

Nelson McCausland: -our offices are about two yards apart so I would have a sense of what is being done through health, and likewise.

Q238 Naomi Long: It would not always be the case that there would be Ministers from the same party. Previously the Health Minister, for example, was an Ulster Unionist and so on. There would not be any structure even within the Executive to allow that conversation to take place.

Nelson McCausland: There is no structure, no.

Q239 Naomi Long: There could be other Departments that are delivering and you would not necessarily be aware of what they are doing or they would not be aware of what you would be doing.

Nelson McCausland: Post another election, it could well be different parties and different people. Therefore there could be a difficulty, possibly.

Q240 Naomi Long: There would be no way for you, as Ministers, to easily co-ordinate the work that you do, then. Even if a series of Ministers are doing quite useful things it would not necessarily be visible to every Minister what other Ministers were doing in this area.

Edwin Poots: Well, you could request the establishment of a ministerial subgroup. We have ministerial subgroups on a whole range of things. Now, in terms of reasonably dealing with people and providing care for people, I would not see that as an unreasonable request. I think it would be unreasonable to reject such a request. I would not see an issue with our seeking the establishment of that, but it would only be done on the basis of agreement across the Executive.

Nelson McCausland: The subcommittees within the Executive that have been established have been quite useful. One in particular relates to my own Department and others to more general issues about delivering social change and so on. That cross-departmental approach is hugely important. I agree entirely that it is hugely desirable and I would fully support it.

Q241 Naomi Long: One of the reservations that David alluded to, which we heard from some of the people giving evidence, was that, effectively, what Ministers were doing now below the radar, which was very helpful, if brought above the radar and into public discussion would then become a point of divisive debate and it could in some way hinder progress being made toward delivering the Covenant. Would that be your sense of it, as Members of the Executive, or do you feel that there would be enough maturity to allow Ministers within their own Departments to continue to progress in the way that you have to date?

Edwin Poots: I suppose every country deals with its Army personnel in different ways. I was in America last week and whenever the flights were called army personnel were offered the opportunity to get on the planes first. Lots of places offer free access, and so forth, to Army personnel and veterans. Every place deals with it differently. Ministers will probably want to test us a little further, but Section 75 sets out a range of groups that cannot be treated less equally. I suppose the bottom line in all of this is that everyone is supposed to be treated the same. No one is supposed to be treated better, and indeed, no one is supposed to be treated worse. Army personnel will not then be treated any worse than anybody else. However, if there was a desire to treat Army personnel better, that would then pose a challenge to us.

Members may have the view that Army personnel should be treated better. If I had two people waiting on an operation, who were fairly similar in their condition, and one of them was a veteran from Afghanistan who had been injured and the other happened to be a car thief who got injured in the car crash, I suppose most of us would say that the person who deserved to be treated first would be the person who had served their country, as opposed to the person who had been a burden on his country. We cannot make that kind of decision as things stand.

There has been a thought that perhaps Westminster could extend Section 75 to include Army personnel. This is something for the Committee, perhaps, to give consideration to. I do not necessarily think that would add any advantage to where we currently are, because Section 75 is mainly about ensuring that minorities are not treated less well. I do not believe that the military are in that situation as things stand.

Nelson McCausland: In terms of housing, a similar situation prevails. There are certain difficulties that can arise regarding service personnel getting access to housing. We can do a lot to address them. What you cannot do, because of equality legislation, is move into that area that there is in England, where the legislation requires councils to give additional preference for housing to certain applicants with connections to the armed forces. You can bring it up to the same level as everyone else by addressing the specific problems that might emerge, which we have identified, but the fact is that to give additional preference would, as we understand it, be contrary to the 1998 equality legislation.

Edwin Poots: We can take steps. For example, if a member of the armed forces had been on a hospital waiting list in a trust anywhere in GB and moved to live in Northern Ireland, they would not come onto the list at the back of the queue. They would come onto the list, taking into consideration that they had been waiting for 12 weeks in another trust, and therefore we can take those things into account. Very often, armed forces personnel are disadvantaged because of the fact that they have to live in different places. I know that the Housing Executive have done some work on that front as well, to ensure that, if they are out of the country on service for a year and a half, they do not start on a new waiting list for housing.

Q242 Naomi Long: We have moved on, I suppose, to two other questions we were going to ask later. I was really looking to see whether you thought the discussion of what you do in the Executive would inhibit you from being able to do what you currently do for the armed services. On Section 75, we have had conflicting evidence. We have had the evidence that you have given to us, which is that it would prevent you from being able to do certain things, which we accept. The evidence we have taken from others is that it is, in some way, a red herring in that all the Armed Forces Covenant requires is that people suffer no disadvantage. Therefore, for example, the issue you raised-where someone moves from one part of the UK to another and would suffer no disadvantage on the waiting list-would not be in conflict with Section 75. In terms of housing, in your memorandum you said that the different legal framework would make it unlikely that your Department could fully reflect the position in GB. Specifically, what are the things you could not do in housing that in GB would happen routinely as part of the Covenant? This is what we have been trying to get to in the evidence.

Nelson McCausland: Housing allocation in Northern Ireland is covered by the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Article 22 sets out that there should be a scheme for the allocation of houses. One of the issues in there is that the person must be resident in Northern Ireland voluntarily and of their own choice. The question then is a technical one of: if a person is resident in Northern Ireland as a soldier, are they there of their own choice or not? Up until now there has been a view, amongst those that deal with these matters, that the person is not there of their own choice. We have that as a particular issue that needs to be resolved.

Secondly, we are doing a general review of social housing allocation policy at present, as part of a wider series of initiatives in regard to social housing. One of the issues we are looking at is social housing allocation policy. A number of academics have been brought in to do an academic review of that and we are awaiting the outcome of that. We are also seeking further legal clarification. The point has been made that you get conflicting legal opinions and we are trying to get further clarification on a number of those points. The Housing Executive do accept that, six months before discharge-when a serving soldier can get the Certificate for Cessation of Entitlement to Occupy Service Living Accommodation-the person is therefore going to become homeless.

Q243 Naomi Long: Just to clarify, you have mentioned about the legal advice that you are exploring. Is that at a departmental level as opposed to just general advice given across the Executive?

Nelson McCausland: No, that is at a departmental level. My officials within the housing division of DSD have drafted some guidance on these matters for the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive themselves have said to us that this is potentially contentious and therefore we are handling it as carefully as possible. We do not want to make the situation more difficult, so it needs to be dealt with carefully and that is certainly being taken forward.

Q244 Naomi Long: Edwin, would the situation be similar in health? Have you sought legal advice and guidance specifically on some of the health issues?

Edwin Poots: I would go back to the Covenant, and what you indicated that the Covenant was set out to do, which was to ensure there is no less equal treatment of Army personnel. Cognisant of that, the Department of Health, which was under Michael McGimpsey at the time, established a protocol for service personnel in Northern Ireland. That protocol was for ensuring equitable access to health and social care services. The aim of that document was to establish a framework of assurance that will ensure that serving members of the armed forces, their families, and veterans suffer no disadvantage in accessing health and social care services, and have equality of access to those services, in common with everyone living in Northern Ireland. Following the publication of that protocol, the Department established the Armed Forces Liaison Forum, which we referred to. That provides that single point of contact with the Department, HSE representatives from the Defence Medical Services, and HSE staff in veterans’ organisations. That allows us to discuss those health and social care issues of mutual interest. That is the type of work that has been going on in our Department to ensure there is equality of treatment for Army personnel and veterans.

Q245 Lady Hermon: I have to say that it is really very good for us as a Committee to have two Ministers from the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland coming and giving us evidence side by side. That has been very helpful this afternoon. There are a couple of things I want to pick up from your opening remarks-I will have to be very formal-Mr McCausland, which are in relation to homelessness among former military personnel. Is there an effort to measure this, and if there is, could you explain it to the Committee? We have taken evidence that no effort has been made to measure homelessness amongst former military personnel. You certainly made a reference to homelessness amongst those who have left the armed forces coming to Northern Ireland. What sort of statistics do you have available to you and what efforts are going to be made to capture that information effectively in the future?

Nelson McCausland: I will draw a distinction at the start between the extreme case of rough sleeping and general homelessness. There is no evidence at the moment to suggest that the issue of homelessness is greater amongst exservice personnel than any other section of society. Having said that, while there is no evidence in that regard that has been forthcoming, we do not have any accurate data at the moment on that matter.

Q246 Lady Hermon: At the moment? That hints that you are going to do something different in the future.

Nelson McCausland: That is why we have commissioned some work to look at this. The wider academic study looking at housing allocations, of which this is a particular part, may well bring forward some information in that regard. In setting up that group to do that work, we did specifically task them with looking at the position of former soldiers. It is not just going off to look at social housing allocations policy. They are definitely looking at this issue.

Q247 Lady Hermon: That is very interesting; we had not heard that before. When do you hope to have a report on your desk and when do you hope then to assimilate that?

Nelson McCausland: I would have to return to you with that information. I am not sure of the date when we will get that.

Q248 Lady Hermon: Do you hope to have it before the end of this year?

Nelson McCausland: Almost certainly, yes. We now have a housing strategy in Northern Ireland, which we never had before, and this feeds into that piece of work developing and building up that strategy. I would want that this year, most definitely.

Q249 Lady Hermon: Your colleague Mr Poots has referred on a number of occasions to the Armed Forces Liaison Forum that the Department of Health has, and we have had quite a number of witnesses who have been very complimentary about the Department and what they have done. Is there any intention within your Department-the Department for Social Development-to mirror what has happened in the Department of Health, such as an Armed Forces Liaison Forum? We have taken evidence this afternoon to say that it is very useful and very effective. If it is, why do we not mirror it in the other Department that has most to do with the armed forces?

Nelson McCausland: It is not something we have done thus far. There has been quite an amount of engagement with representative bodies and so on. I am very much open to the idea and would certainly be keen to take it forward with officials to see what we can do in that regard, because it does seem to be a very good model.

Q250 Lady Hermon: It is a very good model, but now I am going to turn to Mr Poots. Mr Poots, your written evidence to the Committee is very well drafted and this is just an opportunity to update the Committee. There is a reference on page 1, right at the very bottom of the evidence you submitted, which is about the Armed Forces Liaison Forum, about which we have had very complimentary evidence in the past. It says at the very end, "The Forum meets two to three times a year, most recently in April 2011". Now, that has to be a misprint. If it meets two to three times a year, most recently in April 2011, I would like to know what has happened to it in the past two years.

David Simpson: You do not want to overwork them.

Lady Hermon: Is it a misprint?

Edwin Poots: It may well be. I am aware that its next meeting is next Tuesday: 30 April.

Lady Hermon: There’s an update.

Edwin Poots: I suspect that that was planned before this meeting was planned, but nonetheless.

Q251 Lady Hermon: I am absolutely serious. The evidence that you have given suggests-and we as a Committee have thought of this as something that might go into our report-that this Armed Forces Liaison Forum seems eminently sensible: various different bodies trying to contribute, move together and be coherent in what help they can give to the armed forces. So I am intrigued. Perhaps someone could actually look at that and just double-check what happened in 2012 to the meetings, and drop us a note afterwards.

Edwin Poots: Okay, I will seek to ascertain that for you.

Q252 Dr McDonnell: I think most of the stuff has been covered, but there are a couple of points I would like to tease out. We are talking here about the Armed Forces Liaison Forum. Is that the same as the Veterans Forum? Are they one and the same thing or are they two separate things? I am talking about the Veterans Forum that Mike Penning was setting up.

Lady Hermon: That is completely different.

Dr McDonnell: Right. If I could touch on the Veterans Forum, where all these bodies and various stakeholders are gathered, do both of you feel that this is a potential group for an advance? Do you feel that this group could be worked with, either by the Executive overall or by individual Departments?

Edwin Poots: A Veterans Forum provides very important outworking for those people who have served. We have considerable problems with veterans, particularly PTSD, which is affecting a large number of people going back to the Northern Ireland Troubles, Iraq and we will have a huge amount that will come to us from Afghanistan in due course, which has not quite kicked in yet. A Veterans Forum is very important, so we do have good working relationships with, for example, Combat Stress. We have a facility in Hollybush that is used by Northern Ireland veterans. Certainly a Veterans Forum is something that is very important. We have veterans who sit on our Armed Forces Liaison Forum but, nonetheless, a Veterans Forum would be purely representing veterans.

Of course, prosthetics is another very important matter that we continue to deal with well. Prosthetics have a life span of about eight years, if they are well looked after and cared for, so it is important, particularly as veterans get older, that there is a support base for them and they are not left isolated or unsupported. Therefore, the care and support they can receive from something like a Veterans Forum is very important.

Q253 Dr McDonnell: I have a couple of other questions because in the evidence presented, particularly evidence in terms of the Department of Health and Combat Stress, one of the things that was very clear was that they do have a facility and they do have CPN support, but there did appear to be a difficulty with the more severe cases who needed psychiatric support. In that case they had to go to Scotland. Would it be possible, Minister, within the Department of Health, to allocate a consultant or, within some of the psychiatric facilities, earmark a consultant, who would specialise, rather than having as many of them as currently having to go to Scotland? The suggestion was that sometimes the current arrangement inhibited them getting the level of care they needed.

Edwin Poots: I certainly think that PTSD will be a growing issue and growing problem for us in the coming years. I made reference to Northern Ireland’s reservists having twice as high a head per population of representation than any other region of the United Kingdom. It is apparent, in terms of research done, that reservists are more likely to have PTSD than regular soldiers. I do not think it would take a rocket scientist to identify that there is a significant problem coming our way, and we need to be well placed to deal with it. Now, time is on our side to do that and it is something we will give consideration to doing. Our Chief Medical Officer has a very close working relationship with the Army and we need to continue to engage with him to identify the needs of returning troops.

Q254 Dr McDonnell: Would it be possible to appoint one or two psychiatrists who would not necessarily be full time but who would be available and on tap for that? I certainly sense with Combat Stress, when they gave evidence here, that that was the bottleneck in their effort. While 80% to 85% of the clientele were able to be dealt with through counselling, community psychiatric nurses and various things, they did have a difficulty. It should not be too difficult, I would have thought, to establish a psychiatric service in an area that was relatively safe.

Edwin Poots: Certainly it is possible. The desirability and affordability of it would all have to be addressed, and the best method of addressing that is through the Forum. You have the health expertise there, who have the knowledge of what they can do, and the Army personnel, who have the knowledge of what the need is.

Q255 Dr McDonnell: Minister McCausland, could I turn to you for a second? The other problem that has come up, and we have touched on it a number of times, is housing. Do you think there are mechanisms to fix the housing gap? Last week the Legion were very clear that they provided financial support for a lot of exmilitary personnel to access private housing, and while that may not be the perfect solution, it certainly seemed to work. Do you see any solutions for the housing stock? For instance, you mentioned the question of persons being there of their own choice. I would have thought that if somebody joins the Army that it is certainly a choice that they make. I cannot see how legislation or any other regulations from 1981 or wherever-I would see the sense if it was a conscripted Army, but it is not. They are there of their own choice; it is a voluntary action on their part. Surely that should not create the circumstance where they fall foul of access.

Nelson McCausland: Indeed. I welcome that question and the implication that flows from it, because that would certainly be my own view.

Q256 Dr McDonnell: You and I agree on something at last.

Lady Hermon: It is a red-letter day.

Nelson McCausland: The age of miracles is not over. The issue, as in so many of these things, is that when you let legal experts loose on something you get all sorts of different-with no disrespect to Lady Hermon-

Dr McDonnell: We have our legal expert here and we are very fond of her.

Nelson McCausland: And rightly so. The point is that while you get differing opinions, we need to get clarity, and that is why I have commissioned that piece of work: to get absolute clarity on the law. As someone who has no expertise in these legal matters, it would seem reasonable to me, as it does indeed to Dr McDonnell, that it should not be presumed that they are there involuntarily. The other matter is the availability of privately owned housing, if people want to move into that sector. We have invested in the last number of years very heavily in terms of coownership housing, which is a very, very good way for people to get onto the rung of private ownership. It is readily accessible. It was oversubscribed in the past; it has now been topped up to the point where we can meet the demand.

Finally, I suppose in regard to any soldiers coming out of the Army who may be potentially homeless, there is, under the Northern Ireland legislation of 1988, a duty on the Housing Executive to address the issue of homelessness. We are looking at the academic review of the social housing allocation policy, trying to get clarity on this legal point and then also drafting some guidance, potentially, for the Housing Executive. The relationship between the Department and the Housing Executive is that of an arm’s length body. There is a limit to what the Department or I personally as Minister can do, but we would be looking to get some guidance so there is clarity on all these things.

Q257 Ian Paisley: Can I just put on record my appreciation for the good work that you both do and that your Departments do in relation to, specifically, the housing allocations, where we have brought armed service personnel in? You have done what you can and what is possible in terms of interpretation of the rules, and we do appreciate that. We certainly appreciate the efforts that have been made by the Department of Health. We have all seen the letter about IVF, and I know that my colleagues will have some questions about that and prosthetics. I know that you are also doing some very important work with regard to brain injuries among armed service personnel. I think that that is all very commendable. However, going back to the structure within which you have to operate, there is constraint and I think we all appreciate that. We are fortunate at the moment to have two Ministers who have a particular empathy towards the armed service personnel in these two Departments, but is there anything that you can do in terms of the structure within the Department, so that if in the future there is a change in personnel, and therefore a change of the political party that is in charge of your Department, they cannot undo the good work that is being done? Is there anything structurally that can be put in place to protect these mechanisms and indeed the means to insist that a future Minister continues with this good work?

Nelson McCausland: That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we get legal clarity, so that whatever is done is done on the basis that this is legally right, and therefore it is very difficult for someone else to undo it. If you are saying that a member of the armed forces is there on a voluntary basis, well, it is a case either legally they are or not, and that is then a matter that would be settled whoever was in the Department. Our housing body-the Housing Executive as it is at present and whatever emerges from the restructuring of the Housing Executive in due course-is semidetached, or at arm’s length, from central Government. I would have hoped that it would adopt what would be seen, I think, as the compassionate approach to the issue; that people, whatever their backgrounds or political views, would look at these matters and say, "Here are folks who have a need. Whatever I may think about them, the compassionate thing, the right thing, to do is to provide a service whereby they are not discriminated against in any way at all."

We will be continuing with the review of housing structures. The outcome of that is some years away and the implementation further, so I am not sure what else I can say on those points.

Q258 Ian Paisley: Compassion for one Minister could one day become a political football for another.

Nelson McCausland: Absolutely, I agree entirely.

Q259 Ian Paisley: I do not want to put words in your mouth, and I know you would not let me, but are you saying that for armed service personnel veterans, essentially, it is pot luck at the moment? You are fortunate in that you have got Ministers who have empathy, and are using their constructive and compassionate arm in Government to assist, but it is pot luck; next time around it might not be so beneficial.

Edwin Poots: To that extent, you go back to the equality legislation, and it may be a matter for the Committee to consider further in its recommendations that the armed forces personnel would be part of the Section 75 groups-

Lady Hermon: Because it gives a guarantee.

Edwin Poots: If the actions that we are taking are to ensure that they have equal treatment, then in law it would be very clear that no one could actually change something which was put in place to ensure that equality was actually applied.

Q260 Ian Paisley: Let me just follow up on that then. In the memorandum that was submitted by you to the Committee meeting-they are not numbered but it is on page 3-there is reference to Section 75, that it places a statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality, and that Northern Ireland might be able to offer support to veterans and service personnel. It says they are "unable to give any form of preferential treatment in line with the objectives of the Military Covenant because of the restrictions placed upon them by this legislation". That implies that you have already taken legal advice. Are you able to share that legal advice, or are you intending to take further legal advice to get absolute clarity on this?

Edwin Poots: My understanding is that I am not able to share that legal advice, however I am prepared to take further legal advice on the issue, and particularly seek advice from our Attorney General and Chief Law Officer in Northern Ireland on this issue. I do think that what we are talking about here is that the Military Covenant is about ensuring that people are not treated less fairly, and in everything we are seeking to do that is very clearly the case. If there are things that Westminster could do that would enhance us in that respect, then that would be greatly appreciated.

Q261 Ian Paisley: Finally, could you give us an assessment of the aftercare service that is currently on offer to Royal Irish Regiment, formerly UDR, soldiers?

Edwin Poots: My understanding is that that service is very well received, it is a service that is greatly appreciated by the members and former members of those regiments, and all in all that it has been a significant success story. I suppose the issue that would arise is that we are offering that service for RIR/UDR; there are many people in Northern Ireland who are serving in a range of regiments who will not be entitled to that service, so whilst there is a considerable bulk of soldiers from Northern Ireland who will benefit from it, there is a considerable number who will not benefit as a consequence of serving in other regiments.

Q262 Ian Paisley: How much does that service cost your Department at the moment-zero?

Edwin Poots: I do not know. I have not got the answer.

Q263 Ian Paisley: If it was to be broadened out to Irish Guards, nonUDR/RIR officers, who would pick up that additional cost?

Edwin Poots: I believe that it is funded by the regiments, but I do not have absolute clarity on that. If that service were to be provided elsewhere, to other soldiers in other regiments, then I think it would have to come from the Army.

Ian Paisley: The Army-MOD. Okay, thank you very much.

Q264 Mr Hepburn: Can you tell us how the 38 Brigade works with the Housing Executive, and do you think their role is beneficial?

Nelson McCausland: The Housing Executive has confirmed to me that it does liaise with the Northern Ireland Garrison regarding provision of accommodation to people who want to settle in Northern Ireland when their service has come to an end, and the Executive staff in those situations would go out to interview applicants in the establishment where they are based when that is required. There is a direct engagement between the Executive and the Garrison.

Q265 Mr Hepburn: How beneficial is their role?

Nelson McCausland: Do you mean the role of the Housing Executive?

Mr Hepburn: 38 Brigade.

Nelson McCausland: As long as the engagement is taking place, the applicants will be properly served. There is an obligation on the housing sector to treat members of the armed forces fairly, and the current system, as far as I am aware, is working okay in that regard.

Edwin Poots: Thiepval lies in my constituency, and I know that many of 38 Brigade are based in Ballykinler, for example, where the housing is provided by the Army. That is the circumstance and it is not really a suitable location for soldiers to live in outside of the Army base. The Army do have considerable houses in Lisburn area; quite a number of them are currently being offered for sale. Many of them are outside of the base. There is the opportunity for more serving personnel to be in Thiepval, and with good quality housing that the Army currently own. We would be keen to see more serving officers in that constituency.

Q266 Mr Hepburn: Going back to the allocation of housing, if it is right that giving priority to armed forces for housing allocation is contrary to the law, equality law or whatever, there must be ways around it. Have you got ways to get around it?

Nelson McCausland: That is what I have tasked, both from the legal perspective and the independent review by the academics, to come back with some responses and suggestions on that. It would seem to me that we can address that issue, and I welcome the comments from Dr McDonnell in that regard, regarding whether personnel are there voluntarily or not. Any other issues that may arise we would certainly look at very carefully. If there is then a need to give some guidance to the Housing Executive, that can be done. I want to ensure that we get the right outcome, and once we get the legal advice and the academic advice we will move on that.

Q267 Nigel Mills: Mr Poots, I have a few questions following your written submission and a letter you sent to Mr Paisley that he kindly copied to the Committee. First, your Department published a protocol back in 2009 for ensuring equitable access to health and social care services for the armed forces. Have you had a chance to review that protocol and perhaps assess how successful it has been?

Edwin Poots: In terms of the protocol, obviously its assessment is in the meetings that take place with the Liaison Forum and indeed the meetings that will take place between the trusts and the Army directly. The assessment that is carried out at those meetings is about how effective the course of works that we are doing is, in terms of the key areas of concern to the military personnel. A lot of that will be to do with mental health, prosthetics and so forth. What have the responses been like, where are our weaknesses, where are we falling down, how can we do it better? That is the course of work, so it is a continuum, to seek to identify that we are moving things forward in an appropriate way. That liaison is quite good; as indicated, my Chief Medical Officer has a good working relationship with the Army personnel, and there is good contact established there.

Q268 Nigel Mills: Has that process identified any areas where you are falling down on finding that equitable access?

Edwin Poots: IVF is an area where we do not have equitable access with the rest of the United Kingdom, in that NICE have made recommendations that we have not applied in Northern Ireland. Where three cycles of IVF treatment are available, not in all but many parts of the UK-and it ranges from various places-we are not offering three courses of IVF. Now, that impacts upon everyone. It also impacts upon military personnel and we all know that some of our military personnel have suffered quite grievously in some of the conflicts they have been involved in. Therefore it may be something which is of huge importance to them.

Q269 Nigel Mills: So it is not a situation where armed forces veterans are suffering inequality compared with other residents of Northern Ireland; it is compared with other areas of the United Kingdom.

Edwin Poots: It would be compared with other soldiers in other parts of the United Kingdom, although not all parts of the United Kingdom offer the three cycles of IVF.

Q270 Nigel Mills: In the rest of the United Kingdom we have a situation where priority NHS treatment for veterans is offered subject to the clinical needs of others, whereas I think in Northern Ireland you have kind of turned that sentence around and are ensuring no disadvantage. Do you, in practice, think that those things achieve much the same? Priority subject to clinical needs in others is about the same as doing everything based on clinical need, really, isn’t it?

Edwin Poots: Practically I expect that the outworkings are not considerably different. When it comes to Section 75, one of the important lines in it is "to have regard to", so it does not mean that you cannot do certain things, but you have to give regard to what the outcomes are before you actually do it. There is room for interpretation of Section 75, and perhaps civil servants sometimes have a very strict definition of it. Perhaps it could be tested at some point as to whether that is actually the right definition. As I indicated to others, I would be happy to take further legal advice on the issue.

Q271 Nigel Mills: When you are testing clinical need-I accept that that is probably not something you get do every day-

Edwin Poots: It would surprise you.

Nigel Mills: I assume that in reality clinical need is quite a difficult thing to decide: whoever is in the most pain, or has the most immediate need for the surgery, or something. It is not like every hip replacement has the same clinical need, and is something that you can therefore say, "You can be top of the queue because you meet certain criteria." Have there been any examples where you thought "Actually, I could do this armed forces veteran quicker than purely precise clinical need will get to," or is that not a situation that arises?

Edwin Poots: It certainly has not been brought to my attention. Some of my colleagues will bring cases to me and they go into the system. It is never the job for a Minister to second-guess the role of the clinician; it is for the clinician to decide, but that one has not come to my attention as yet. I think that one of the areas of greatest clinical need is probably in the mental health of our soldiers and veterans. That is an area that always proves to be challenging. I would say that, in Northern Ireland, mental health has been the poor relation within the health service traditionally, so it would then fall that for people who are in the Army, or who are veterans, who are suffering mental health issues-and we know that is quite common-the service we are providing may not be as good as in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Q272 Nigel Mills: Do you have any evidence on the extent to which that is a problem?

Edwin Poots: No, I have not. I just indicate that the amount of money that we spend on mental health as a proportion of the population that requires mental health treatment is not where I would like it to be, but we all know that we are in a period of constraint, and I am not in a position to significantly increase that budget at this point. Dr McDonnell asked a question about psychiatrists and so forth, and whether we could make them available. Those things probably would be desirable for us to do, but our ability to do it may be constrained.

Q273 Ian Paisley: I just noticed, on the query about the date in April 2011, that was written evidence submitted on 17 October 2011, when you were previously before another Committee.

Q274 Lady Hermon: So I stand corrected. Can we have the dates of the meetings last year? Thank you for that correction. Could I just pick up on the point that you made; you were very complimentary in your remarks about Combat Stress, views that we would share in this Committee, I am sure. Could I just double-check: does the Department of Health actually make a financial contribution to the work of Combat Stress? So, for example, if a veteran from Northern Ireland was extremely unwell and needed to go to Hollybush House in Scotland, does the money follow the person going to Scotland? Is there financial contribution to Combat Stress?

Edwin Poots: I am not sure. Combat Stress, I believe, were with you last week or the week before.

Lady Hermon: Yes.

Edwin Poots: They have subsequently sent me a letter requesting a meeting, so I am sure that will be a matter for discussion at that meeting.

Q275 Lady Hermon: And you have agreed to a meeting, or will be agreeing to the meeting.

Edwin Poots: I will be agreeing to the meeting. I got the letter yesterday and I signed off a note agreeing to it, yes.

Q276 Dr McDonnell: Just another point to tease out: Mark Francois, the MOD Minister, told us that the MOD did a lot of the funding of advanced prosthetics for service personnel wounded in action. The DHSS in Northern Ireland wants to provide those. Is there an issue there, is there a complication, or is that a decision taken to avoid complications?

Edwin Poots: In Northern Ireland we have taken the position that those who require prosthetics should all receive it at the top-end standard, and our officials have liaised closely with MOD and senior clinical staff at the RDS and the Belfast Trust on matters relating to prosthetic component reprovision, and the defence medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey held an open day on 18 April to establish joint links between NHS representatives, devolved Administrations, Murrison centre staff and the staff of Headley Court. Frank Young, who is our coDirector of Therapy and Therapeutics at Belfast City Hospital, and Dr Lorraine Graham, who is a consultant in rehabilitation medicine at Musgrave Park, attended that event, so there is a close working relationship with them, with the aim of providing top-quality prosthetics to all of our people, including our veterans.

Q277 Dr McDonnell: Can you claim anything from the MO for doing that, or is that purely at DHSS expense?

Edwin Poots: I believe that once the person comes to Northern Ireland, it is a DHSS expense. Prior to that, any treatment that they would receive, for example at Headley, would be covered by that source.

Q278 Naomi Long: The MOD and the Northern Ireland Office have indicated that what they are trying to do is identify whether there are any gaps in service provision where members of the armed services are treated more disadvantageously, and where some work needs to be done. In your Departments, do you currently monitor or record the proportions of armed forces members who are, for example, on waiting lists for housing, registered as homeless, or on waiting lists for hospital procedures and treatment? Do you keep any record of that at all that would allow you to see whether it was a higher proportion in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK, or whether it was disproportionate in terms of the background population, for example?

Nelson McCausland: In terms of housing, there is nothing to suggest at the moment that it is in any way disproportionate. There is no firm data at the moment on those matters.

Q279 Naomi Long: Do you judge that, Nelson, based on levels of complaint that you receive, or representations? How would you get an estimate of whether it is disproportionate or not? If there is nothing to suggest that it is, what would you be looking for that would suggest that it was?

Nelson McCausland: Those who work in the area of homelessness, whether in the extreme form or general homelessness, would have a fairly good understanding of the nature of the clientele that they are dealing with. That is the basis for it. It may be somewhat subjective, but that would indicate there is not a particular problem. Having said that, if you take the extreme case of rough sleeping, the number of rough sleepers in Northern Ireland is extremely small. Having been out on a few nights to meet a number of them, it was quite clear that it is not exservice people.

Edwin Poots: In terms of the medical side of things, I indicated at the outset of my comments that being discreet was particularly important in Northern Ireland. Therefore we cannot have a system which has 70,000 employees with military personnel flagged in it. In the interests of military personnel, that is not easily identifiable through the health and social care system, and, again, it is something for the Liaison Forum to highlight perhaps and do that course of work on.

Q280 Naomi Long: So it is not something where you believe that the Executive, through the Departments, would be able to collate information for the NIO and the MOD. It would actually almost be the reverse: that they would need to be collating that information through their support mechanisms to then feed back to you as individual Ministers to deal with in terms of the security issues.

Edwin Poots: I think so, yes. It is very important that we ensure that military personnel are not compromised in any way, shape or form, particularly those who live in border areas in counties such as Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Q281 Mr Anderson: Part of the responsibility for the Secretary of State for Defence is to seek the views of any relevant devolved Administration when preparing the Annual Report for Parliament on the Armed Forces Covenant. Last year, despite being requested, my understanding is that the Northern Ireland Executive decided not to respond. Was that a formal decision?

Nelson McCausland: No, it just does not happen.

Edwin Poots: It would have been dealt with through OFMDFM, and it was not brought to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Q282 Mr Anderson: So there was no formal or informal discussion with yourselves or other groups within the Executive.

Nelson McCausland: No. It would only come on to the table or agenda for an Executive meeting if it had got through OFMDFM, and it did not-therefore it did not arrive.

Edwin Poots: It requires the agreement of both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister before a matter comes to the Executive’s table, so for example if, on this issue, the Deputy First Minister had refused to put it on the agenda, it would not have been on the agenda.

Q283 Mr Anderson: Do you know whether they are intending to contribute to this year’s report?

Nelson McCausland: I have no knowledge of that but I would not necessarily anticipate any change, unfortunately.

Q284 Mr Anderson: The Minister of State for Defence, Mark Francois, told us that the MOD was working with individual Departments to try and make progress on filling gaps where he believed it was lacking compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. Have your Departments actually worked with the MOD on trying to identify those gaps and filling them?

Nelson McCausland: My understanding is that, yes, there has been contact with the MOD. Certainly there has been contact with the local garrison and contact with veterans’ organisations, so there has been a fair level of engagement. I think we are fairly clear as to what the issues are that need to be addressed, and they are the ones I outlined earlier. If there are other things either the MOD or veterans feel should be addressed and would be in the remit of my Department, I would certainly be happy to look at those.

Edwin Poots: I know, Mr Chairman, that Mike Penning is looking into the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland and what can be done. There was a meeting that took place with the Prime Minister between senior members of my own party. At that, there was a proposal for a facility in Northern Ireland, which we believe should be funded by the Government and military charities, to provide specialist treatment for PTSD and lifechanging injuries. Mike Penning is due to meet again with us to update us on his findings.

Q285 Mr Anderson: You might not be able to answer this because it is not your Department, but do you think there is a scope for the MOD to work with other individual Departments so that it increases access to public services for the armed forces community, and if there is, could you expand on it?

Edwin Poots: I have no doubt that there are other Departments where military personnel will have a role in terms of the service that is being provided to them. DEL would spring to mind particularly as one where people are looking for employment opportunities, having served in the military, but there are many other Departments, yes, where certainly there would be opportunities. That is why I would be happy-and suggested earlier on that I would be happy-to put the case forward for the establishment of a ministerial subgroup, because we have them on issues such as suicide, children, poverty and so forth. There is no reason why we could not request the establishment of such a ministerial subgroup, which would assist us in having a better coordinated response to the issues that come before us.

Q286 Lady Hermon: Could I follow up on what you have just said about the meeting that took place at Number 10? Could I just ask you to clarify precisely whether it was in fact the Prime Minister at that meeting who gave a commitment that there should be "a facility" in Northern Ireland to deal with PTSD?

Edwin Poots: He did not give that commitment, unfortunately.

Lady Hermon: It is just as well we clarified that.

Edwin Poots: The people who were at that meeting requested that such a facility would be put in place, and he tasked Mike Penning, the NIO Minister, to look at the issues, so there is a followup meeting to that due to take place.

Q287 Lady Hermon: In other words it has not been ruled out, but it has not been confirmed.

Edwin Poots: That would be right.

Q288 Lady Hermon: Right. I am glad I clarified that, because I thought we were going to have an announcement from Number 10 about a commitment for a special facility in Northern Ireland, which would be very welcome.

Edwin Poots: Well, any influence you can bring to bear there would be greatly appreciated.

Q289 Lady Hermon: Oh, you would probably have more influence, I have to say, than I would in Number 10. Anyway, moving on quickly, I come back to the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant. The Secretary of State for Defence has a duty under the legislation-whether we like lawyers or not, they can be very useful-to "seek the views of any relevant devolved administration" when he is preparing the Annual Report. We have taken evidence repeatedly that in fact there has not been a reply from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and you have explained to the Committee why that would be. Surely it is perfectly within your remit, as Ministers in relevant Departments and very much involved with delivering the Armed Forces Covenant, for you to make that contribution to a much needed Annual Report, and to make it much more balanced. What you have told us is that there is a lot of very good work going on in Northern Ireland, by your Departments in particular, towards looking after the armed forces and those who have served their country and retired with injury, psychological or otherwise. Surely that should not go unnoticed in the Annual Report. Could we just convince you to make that happen?

Edwin Poots: I would tend to agree that the Report is the poorer for not having the contribution of Northern Ireland in it, because we make up an important element of the military, and should a request come to me, I would be very happy to respond to it.

Q290 Lady Hermon: And is that likewise?

Nelson McCausland: Likewise.

Q291 Lady Hermon: And to date, can I just ask you then, is it the case that the MOD has not formally asked individual Ministers to make a contribution to the Armed Forces Annual Report?

Nelson McCausland: I am not aware of direct requests to the Department. I assume that the request has gone to the centre.

Q292 Lady Hermon: To OFMDFM, and then it is lost. It is sucked into a black hole, so to speak.

Edwin Poots: If protocols do not prevent it, I am sure that all of this could be facilitated.

Lady Hermon: Perhaps that is something the Committee could look at when we are finalising our Report, and make a recommendation, if we can, to that effect, since you are so willing to contribute. That would be very helpful.

Q293 David Simpson: I just want to go back to one point. Nelson, I think you mentioned earlier that at long last we had now managed to get a housing strategy. Are either Department, particularly yours I suppose, aware of any difficulties there have been in housing security force people who have served in the Army because of the sensitivities in the areas geographically within Northern Ireland. Are you aware of any particular difficulties?

Nelson McCausland: It is not something that has been brought to my attention so far. I would have thought if there were major problems I would have had representations from local elected representatives, or indeed by MPs. I have not, to my recollection, had any thus far.

David Simpson: That is good.

Q294 Naomi Long: I have one final question and a comment to preface it. I think, Edwin, that you have mentioned the potential for DEL to be involved in terms of employment and training. I am aware that Stephen Farry as the Minister is liaising with the MOD around his Department in terms of what is going on with the Armed Forces Covenant and where his Department’s responsibilities can be. Again, that is maybe something where it would be helpful if there were some mechanism for Ministers collectively to be aware of that ongoing work.

Nelson McCausland: The point is well made; as my colleague said earlier, the idea of a ministerial or executive subcommittee dealing with this would be particularly helpful. There is a range of issues where they span two Departments. For example jobs and benefits: there is a crossover there. The provision of accommodation: if somebody is suffering from PTSD, can they manage to live independently? What support do they need for independent living? There is a crossover there, and a crossover again with DEL. Therefore that would be the ideal approach.

Q295 Naomi Long: Just very briefly, I think you will probably be able to answer this, and we probably can predict the answer but we will give you the opportunity to give us an answer anyway. Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have appointed an Armed Forces and Veterans Advocate, so that is a senior civil servant, to have responsibility for ensuring the policy developments across their departmental remit and so on that impact on the armed forces will be dealt with in a particular way. Combat Stress indicated to us that they would like, for example, in terms of structural issues around this, perhaps to see similar measures, and also to see Northern Ireland represented on the Covenant Reference Group. We are not currently represented. If we were going to send somebody to that, who would represent us at that? At what level would that have to be? Given what we have already established about tensions around these issues within the Executive, is there a means-I suppose it is a similar question to the one which Sylvia has asked-by which those difficulties can be worked around in order that we could be represented in that situation?

Edwin Poots: Again, the Liaison Forum is probably the appropriate vehicle for such a discussion. It may be that we can appoint an armed forces advocate from a single Department, which other Departments could then use to support them in the work that they do. Whilst we are somewhat hamstrung, there are still opportunities for us to think outside the box on how we achieve the results that the Military Covenant aims for.

Q296 Kate Hoey: Sorry for missing your opening. You say there are problems, but just summarise very simply for the Committee what is the stumbling block to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, fully implementing law in this respect, to do with the Military Covenant.

Edwin Poots: We have a joint office, in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have equal powers. Obviously, one party in that office is Republican. They do not support being in the United Kingdom in the first place and they certainly do not support the British military personnel. That is, quite bluntly, how it is; that is the reality that we work against. However, we seek to work with each other and as far as that is possible come to agreement on issues. Some issues we will not find common ground on, and some issues are left to people to follow their own pursuit and actually achieve those outcomes. Others, perhaps, whilst not facilitating us, will not block us in achieving those outcomes.

Q297 Nigel Mills: Is it only Sinn Féin that you think are blocking the Assembly, or are any of the other parties also not keen on this idea?

Edwin Poots: I do not think that I or Nelson is best placed to answer that question, but perhaps others in the room might be.

Lady Hermon: No, we want to hear from you. You’re the witnesses.

Nelson McCausland: It would be inappropriate, I think, for us to speak on behalf of another nationalist party.

Dr McDonnell: You are dead right.

Chair: I think that is probably good timing for you to catch your flight back, appropriately. I found it a very useful session, and very valuable. Thank you very much for coming over to see us.

Prepared 16th July 2013