Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 15 May 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr David Anderson

Mr Stephen Hepburn

Lady Hermon

Naomi Long

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

Andrew Percy

David Simpson

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Major Alan McDade, Chairman, Lt Col (Retd) Howard Brooker, Vice President, and Capt (Retd) Raymond Corbett, Secretary, Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment, gave evidence.

Q298 Chair: Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us. As you are aware, we are conducting an inquiry into the Armed Forces Covenant and its particular application in Northern Ireland. We are very grateful to you for coming to talk to us this afternoon. We would like to ask various questions. Can I invite you to make any very brief opening remarks you wish, particularly telling us where you draw your members from?

Alan McDade: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. It is kind of the Committee to invite us to be here and we are very thankful for the opportunity to address you. Our written submission has been with you for some time and we stand by what we say in that written submission. As to our membership, currently the Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment is a bit unique, as associations go, insofar as we draw our membership from those ex-servicemen who serve in the First and Second Battalions and the now disbanded Home Service Royal Irish Regiment. Equally, if any members or ex-servicemen from the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rangers find themselves closer to our locations, they can join our branch and become full members of our regimental association. We currently have around 480 active members, drawn from a population who are young, active and want to play a part in the association. We have a lot of sleepers who are on the books but do not actively turn up at meetings. The association’s aims are to be there as an organisation to promote comradeship, to carry on from the service community, be a welfare organisation and help any servicemen or women who find themselves in need of support, whatever that support may be. We put the ethos around our membership that every one of us is a welfare worker and that we keep an eye out for each other. If we find that any of our members, or exservicemen who are not members, are from any other regiment we try to assist them and point them in the right direction to find assistance from charities or their own regimental associations.

Q299 David Simpson: You are very welcome, gentlemen, to the Committee. The evidence or submission that you gave in writing is very interesting. If you are diligent in your work you may have read some of the evidence that we received. It is very confusing for the Committee, certainly from my perspective, because the last time we had evidence was from the Royal British Legion and from SSAFA, who made it very clear in the Committee that they were not in favour of the Covenant being implemented in Northern Ireland because they felt it would have a detrimental effect. Personally, I disagree. You are saying that it should be. Why do you believe it should be, and how could it be implemented?

Alan McDade: As we have stated, the Military Covenant has been enshrined into UK law, we believe. Servicemen in Northern Ireland are therefore disadvantaged, purely and simply because, if it is UK law-

Q300 David Simpson: Can I stop you for one second? Sorry for cutting across you. Chairman, can I clarify that point? I think SSAFA mentioned at the last evidence session that they did not believe it was enshrined in law. I stand to be corrected on that.

Chair: My understanding, having had it researched, is that the Armed Forces Covenant is mentioned in law, it is written in law, but there is not a legal requirement to implement it. Special Adviser, have I put that correctly?

Special Adviser: Yes.

Naomi Long: Could we also clarify that neither SSAFA nor the British Legion said that they did not want it implemented, but they raised issues about how it would be implemented.

David Simpson: I think if we check the minutes, Chairman-

Chair: One thing at once, please. With regard to the legal position, have I stated that correctly?

Special Adviser: The principles are enshrined in law and the Secretary of State for Defence is required to provide an annual report on the Covenant, but I think that is distinct from saying it is enshrined in law, which implies that every provision of it is written in law and is judiciable. That, I think, is not the case. That is what Liam Fox, as the Secretary of State for Defence at the time, made clear in the Commons in 2011.

Q301 David Simpson: To go back to what I said-taking Naomi’s point-I stand to be corrected if I repeated it wrongly, but they did say that if it was forced through, it could have a detrimental effect on the current provision that is there. They said words to that effect, but the minutes can be checked in relation to that.

Chair: You can state your position on it anyway.

Alan McDade: If it is not there, is it not the case that servicemen are disadvantaged in Northern Ireland compared to England, Scotland and Wales? The reverse has to be the same, by definition.

Q302 David Simpson: How do you think it could be implemented?

Alan McDade: For exservicemen who have been demobbed in Portsmouth, whatever they are entitled to, housing etc, should be the same in Cardiff, it should be the same in Edinburgh and it should be the same in Belfast. That is the position we are taking.

Q303 Lady Hermon: It is very nice indeed to see all three of you here. Sorry we ran a little bit over with our private business but it is very good of you indeed to come over and give us evidence. Could we focus a little bit more on where you think Northern Ireland exservice personnel are disadvantaged compared to those in the rest of the United Kingdom? Where do you actually identify those specific deficiencies? Mr Brooker, we have not heard your voice, so go on: the floor is yours, as they say.

Howard Brooker: Could I say firstly that the military community in Northern Ireland are different from the military community everywhere else? That is the first point you need to take on board.

Q304 Lady Hermon: Why would you describe yourselves as being different? That is not to say that I disagree with you, but I would like you to articulate it.

Howard Brooker: I am sure you very much agree with me, but that is the first thing I need to say. I served as a part-time soldier for over 30 years. I lived, worked and served as a soldier in the same community. I worked as a farmer at my home, I lived, obviously, in my home and I served as a soldier around my home. That automatically makes me different. With that came a great threat to my life. I am not saying "I" personally, but I am speaking broadly about soldiers across Northern Ireland. With that came a threat to my life. The differences are ad infinitum. I could list them now: personal security, where I could go, where I could not go, how I treated my family-the list is endless. I am different; therefore, when I serve or leave the regiment, I have different needs. I will give you a couple of examples that I have not heard addressed.

Lady Hermon: That would be very helpful, thank you.

Howard Brooker: One of them is the issue of the personal security of the exmember of the Royal Irish Regiment or that family. I left the regiment when the Home Service battalions were disbanded on 31 March 2007. Incidentally, I left the Home Service part of the regiment as the highest ranked soldier. I personally was the highest ranked soldier on that day and the only person in that rank, so I was unique. I had personal security needs when I left on that day and since, and those are not addressed. I am not laying blame at any door for that. Efforts were made at the time and a little team was set up in the Lisburn headquarters in Northern Ireland to deal with that, but it really was more of a sop to the soldier-maybe that is not the right term-rather than something that would be effective. That is just an example.

From day to day and increasingly so, the IRA, who are still there, would like to see me gone. I am speaking broadly of the soldier and not me personally. There are still threats to soldiers. For instance, around the town of Cookstown about two years ago there was a huge threat against exmembers of the regiment, to the extent that they were all given personal security measures, they were all rearmed and things like that. That is something that needs to be addressed. I am different in that respect.

Q305 Lady Hermon: The principles are not spelt out in detail in legislation. What we are really looking at in the Committee is if the Armed Forces Covenant were to be implemented in exactly the same way across the UK, would that address the really important issue that you have just raised?

Howard Brooker: Under the scope of the Covenant, in heading 11, is support after service. Specifically under support after service, I think personal security of the exmember is part of that. We had this discussion with one of your Members earlier and we said that whether you call it the Ulster Covenant or whatever you call it, it does not really matter as long as something exists that deals with the issue. It seems to me that if the Covenant were implemented, that lays the onus on Government or whomever to formally see that the personal security of the exsoldier is seen to. There is no formal arrangement at the moment. There is no onus on anybody to do it. There is nobody I can go to and say, "You are not doing your job properly." That is an example.

The Covenant seems to be a way of formalising that and placing the onus. Across a range of issues at the minute things work under the radar, and they work very well, I am told. But what happens if that arrangement suddenly disappears? Your next speaker will probably home in on that point, but what happens if that disappears? Where is the onus then placed to deal with these things? Those are the issues that concern me.

Q306 Lady Hermon: Are there any other specific areas of deficiency?

Howard Brooker: I will mention another one as well-but maybe I am stealing the limelight here.

Lady Hermon: No it is fine; it will come back to Mr McDade in a minute.

Howard Brooker: I will deal with another issue, which is victimhood. I did some specific work directly with victims once I left the service, through a victims group-voluntary service. Something that is very close to the heart of those who have served is the definition of the word "victim". We have a different definition in Northern Ireland from the one we have Europeanwide. That is something that troubles people and it is something that could be dealt with. What is the definition of a victim in England, Scotland or Wales? I suppose it is different from here.

Lady Hermon: It is different.

Howard Brooker: But nevertheless I am treated differently.

Lady Hermon: Thank you, that is very helpful to us.

Q307 Dr McDonnell: I appreciate that; you have added a couple of dimensions. The personal security one I think is important. We need to get some sense of how the Covenant would help that, in detail. I can see the Covenant being applied and people still living in disadvantage in terms of personal security. People in Portsmouth, or wherever, do not need the level of personal security that you are talking about, so if you apply the same standard as Portsmouth you still do not get the level. The victimhood thing is important as well.

The two points I would like to concentrate briefly on, which have emerged from other evidence and in which I have taken an interest, are, first, access to housing and, secondly, healthcare, specifically proper psychiatric support for those who need it. That is not something that 95%, 96% or 97% will need but there are a small number who will need it. What are your views about how housing needs are met? Secondly, what are your views as to how psychiatric support, for those few who need it, is delivered? The sense we were getting from other organisations is that, fair enough, there is psychiatric support in the form of psychiatric nursing support, but if a patient needs a psychiatrist, in some cases they have to go to Scotland. Again, would it not be easy-to extrapolate it all-to appoint or have somebody responsible appoint a local, friendly psychiatrist who would deal with those issues?

Alan McDade: To take the first point on housing, in our written submission we gave a case example. This was actually the son of a friend of my wife’s. He had served 21 years in the Royal Signals and he found himself being medically discharged from the Army with one year still to serve. Because of that, and because the way he was discharged was actually quite rushed, and he had a wife and children-both parents had agreed to move back to Northern Ireland-the particular difficulty he found was that no one could help him get on to the housing list in the area he wanted, to raise his family. He also found difficulties getting schooling. He was fortunate enough in that when he contacted headmasters, he did then find that with the second he approached he got through. He ended up, on the housing side, having to use half of the gratuity he received from the Army to put a deposit down on a house because it was the only way, within the time frame, he could get a house in the area where schools were available, where he could comfortably raise his family. Housing is a bit difficult. My understanding is that someone coming out of the forces in England, Scotland or Wales, having been on service for 22 years and living in married quarters, does get some kind of recognition that elevates them up the list for council housing. That is not applicable in Northern Ireland. The example of that Royal Signals guy is a case in point.

From a psychiatric point of view, we rely heavily on the Royal Irish Aftercare Service for our members, some of whom have gone through traumatic experiences during the Troubles. Nobody knows when PTSD is going to hit. In some cases the guy is fine, you meet him at social gatherings, meetings and so on, and then suddenly the next thing you hear is that he is being treated for depression, and it is the slippery slope in looking for psychiatric help. As I said earlier, in the association we are all welfare advocates and we try to help and keep an eye out for those individuals. There are those who slip through the net but our first point of call is to use the UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service.

I have another example. I personally met an exsoldier who had been out for some time, coming out of Tesco in Newtonabbey doing his weekly shop. I asked him if he was doing okay, if everything was fine. He just put his shopping down and said, "No boss." I said, "What’s wrong?" He then started to tell me the story. His son had been involved in a fairly serious road traffic accident. He had had to give up his job. His wife had left him and gone back to live in England. Their marriage had split up. He was left with no job, having to look after his disabled son. My first question to him was, "Do you need help?" He said, "Yes please." A big problem is getting them to admit that they need help. He did ask for help and my next phone call was to the UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service. Within three days someone was out to see him. Obviously, it was in confidence and I did not know what happened. About four months later, at a social gathering, he came up to me and said, "Thanks very much. What you did for me was very, very good and I am now on the road to getting my life back on the straight and narrow."

The psychiatric care and the help that is given to our soldiers by the Royal Irish Aftercare Service has to be applauded as a model to go forward. Do we need someone in Northern Ireland? Yes please. It is a problem for some soldiers to get to Scotland. If it is local, obviously it is a lot easier for them, particularly if they have commitments in the home.

Chair: That is useful, thank you very much.

Q308 Mr Hepburn: What about other social requirements and things that people in normal walks of life take for granted, like doctors and dentists? What sort of assistance is given for that sort of thing?

Raymond Corbett: I can answer that one. I left and I got my resettlement all sorted out by the Army. They do give you advice and they do tell you where to go to, but if you left the Army and five years later you still need help, you are lost by yourself. You need an association of some sort, or someone in the Royal British Legion to help you. You do get advice when you leave. However, in saying that, if you have mental health issues at that stage you do not know who to turn to if you have been out for a while. There is an aftercare package run by our regimental association and it is very good. However, they need informing about who needs it. Associations and the Royal British Legion are really the only people who can put them right in that way. Once you leave the Army, you leave the Army. I have left it and it is a different atmosphere altogether to come into. You lose all your friends. Depression does set in, there is no doubt about it, because you have been with those people for 20odd years, and when you leave you are by yourself, really; you feel you are by yourself.

Q309 Mr Hepburn: How long does that cutoff take?

Raymond Corbett: It took me about five years to get rid of that, personally. I was fairly lucky; I had my own home. If you have not got your own home, it is very hard to come out, get a house and then try and buy your home. You want to keep your resettlement money and you want to start your own business, because people leaving the Army do not really want to work for anybody; they want to work for themselves. After 20odd years in the military taking orders, you want to work for yourself.

Q310 Mr Hepburn: You think there is a case to be made to prolong the aftercare.

Raymond Corbett: I would say so, especially in the Royal Irish. We have it extended until 2014. Also, what I would like to see is the aftercare expanded to represent all services. At the moment it is only Home Service Royal Irish. They do not look after the First Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment. If they come home, they are not looked after. Nor are other regiments, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy included.

Alan McDade: Your question was directed towards what other help is needed. As Raymond says, the career transition partnership is a facility given to all servicemen leaving. I availed myself of it when I was coming out. It was beneficial to me. What are not there are particular nuances that apply to the exservice community in Northern Ireland who want to settle in Northern Ireland. Where do they find a doctor who has no questionable background in respect of their political sympathies in Northern Ireland? Where do they find a dentist? Where do they find schools and so on? I think the career transition partnership should have a bolton package for the Northern Ireland-settling exservice community. I see Dr McDonnell looking at me; I am not casting aspersions on the doctoring profession, certainly not. I have the greatest respect for physicians.

Q311 Dr McDonnell: I hesitate now. I spent 30 years as a GP and I had many military people and security people as patients. I think most GPs, regardless of personal politics, would be reasonably professional.

Mr Hepburn: There is the Hippocratic Oath.

Dr McDonnell: I do not think we should gild the lily.

Howard Brooker: I think you might have missed the point that Alan was making. It is not the point that any doctor would have any doubts; it is the doubt that would be in the settling man’s mind. He would have that doubt and say, "Where should I go?" That is where the doubt lies; it is not with the doctor.

Dr McDonnell: Sitting in a GP’s waiting room or something like that, or a dentist’s waiting room, would be exposure that people would be entitled not to feel frightened of.

Q312 Naomi Long: Thank you for your evidence so far. It has been quite enlightening to hear from your perspective how things are working, as well as from those who deliver the services. That is quite important in terms of the evidence that we are taking. In your written submission you argued that the UDR and the Royal Irish Aftercare Service should be expanded to cover the wider exservice population in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland as well. What benefits do you think that would open up to veterans who are not currently under that service provision?

Alan McDade: The UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service was set up as a bespoke organisation. When you consider that 60,000 of the population of Northern Ireland served during the Troubles in the UDR and the Royal Irish Home Service, there was, in each of the battalions throughout the Troubles, a welfare organisation who looked after the welfare needs of servicemen in those battalions. When the battalions were gone, the MOD recognised that there was a need for this aftercare, and indeed they funded it until 2012. As Raymond said, they have extended that now until 2014. Our worry and concern is what is going to happen after 2014. We firmly believe that the model that has been developed after the disbandment of the Royal Irish Home Service is an exact model that should be applied not just in Northern Ireland, but we could look after Southern Ireland as well. Equally, we could look at a similar organisation in Scotland, England-maybe two or three in England-and Wales. We believe that that model works. It has been proven to be successful in the six years of its existence. If it is working, expand it, make it better, embrace the Royal Signals, embrace the Royal Navy and embrace all the other regiments and the Air Force service community that is settling in Northern Ireland. If the expertise is there, make use of it. That would be our view.

Q313 Naomi Long: Earlier in the evidence, Howard, you said that your experience of being in the Army was different and therefore the context when you leave-essentially you leave into the community in which you also served as a soldier-is not typical. You have also described the aftercare service as bespoke, because it was designed around the needs of people who were in that context. The MOD certainly made the case that it was a bespoke service, which was catering for a section of the armed forces community that would be in a context very specific to Northern Ireland, home regiments and so on. Would you accept that because it is so tailored, it would not be appropriate to broaden its remit, or that to broaden its remit would mean it could lose something of what it does in a very bespoke way, for people in a very unique situation?

Raymond Corbett: I personally do not think it would affect it whatsoever. It would probably help it if we got more funding. We have people who do not only serve in the Royal Irish but who serve in the Navy or the Air Force. They come home, but if they wanted help they would have to go back over to England, Scotland or Wales to get help. If the aftercare service was expanded within Northern Ireland it would not be a problem for their families.

Howard Brooker: May I make a couple of quick points as well? A soldier settling out of any regiment in the British Army and coming back to Northern Ireland is no different in the eyes of the community. He is still a soldier and in that sense he is still a target. He needs to resettle; that is the first thing. The second thing is that perhaps the military did not extend the aftercare service because it does not exist anywhere else in the UK. Therefore everywhere else in the UK would immediately have aspirations for their own aftercare service. I think maybe it came down to finance. They say, "We do not want to make it for all the Army, because if all the Army see that they will want it everywhere else as well." That might be one of the constraints. That is no reason for not doing it though. It does not mean it is not right to do it.

Q314 Naomi Long: Just to clarify, it is only the Home Service and not general service personnel from the Royal Irish who can avail themselves of the service.

Howard Brooker: Yes.

Naomi Long: So even those who are in the Royal Irish but are not Home Service would not be able to benefit from the aftercare.

Howard Brooker: It may well be that the aftercare service might see fit, on occasions, to help others whom they are not really expected to help, but they would purely be doing that as a gesture of good will. They would not be supposed to be doing it. I think that is wrong. It is wrong that they have to do that.

Q315 Lady Hermon: You mentioned that there might have been financial constraints that meant the aftercare service was not extended. Have you figures that you could give us as to the cost of the aftercare service per year? What is the commitment now? It has been extended from 2012 to 2014 but do you have a round figure of the cost?

Raymond Corbett: I do not think it would be right for us to give those figures. All we are saying is that they have been funded. What they have been funded we do not know.

Alan McDade: We could write to the director of the aftercare service and ask him if he would be kind enough to send it in.

Lady Hermon: It would be very helpful to the Committee if we had some indication, even if it is not an exact amount and it turns out to be £5 million less than that. Thank you for that commitment.

Q316 Mr Anderson: Can I ask about the particular people who are not covered by the aftercare service? Do they access the general National Health Service for mental health problems? Do they have problems with that? There is the obvious issue-you have a problem-but are they not allowed access, or is there a waiting list?

Howard Brooker: There is a waiting list.

Alan McDade: They would go on to the waiting list the same as anyone else in Northern Ireland.

Q317 Mr Anderson: I was just picking up on what you said. Effectively it was that if they could not go on the aftercare service it was almost as though they had no alternative other than to go to Scotland.

Alan McDade: Obviously they could go through their normal GP in Northern Ireland, who would refer them. We have no evidence of individual cases that we could quote to you on that.

Q318 Nigel Mills: In the written submissions that you kindly sent us, you both called for a representative of the Northern Ireland veterans community to be appointed to the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group, as the Scots and the Welsh have done. Do you have any views on who you think that appointee should be?

Alan McDade: First of all, we advocated in our written submission a veterans forum for Northern Ireland. Since we wrote that paper, we understand that there are moves afoot for that to happen. The other aspiration we had was that there should be a veterans commissioner for Northern Ireland. We have a population of 150,000 exservicemen from the Korean War right through to Afghanistan today and our own Troubles, but we have no voice in Northern Ireland. There is no one that we can go to, as a veterans commissioner, to voice our concerns. An exserviceman or woman-not from the Home Service regiments, who can use the aftercare-who settles in Northern Ireland and has issues or problems with their pension has to phone the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency in Blackpool to try and get it resolved. There is no office that they can walk into and just say, "I have a problem and my problem is", because it does not exist.

They are then into the realms of trying to get the Royal British Legion to take up their case. They are very good at doing so and they do try to sort matters out but if you are like me, I would prefer to sit down across a table with someone and say, "Here is my issue, here is my problem, please can you help?" rather than phone. Something needs to be done for that 150,000 population in Northern Ireland so that they have access to someone who can take up their case for them.

Q319 Nigel Mills: Is that a veterans commissioner appointed by the Northern Ireland Executive, the MOD or where?

Alan McDade: We would not care who it came from, as long as that someone was there.

Lady Hermon: But you would be pleased if it was the First Minister or Deputy First Minister who was appointing the veterans commissioner.

Chair: I am sure you would be.

Lady Hermon: I would be absolutely thrilled if that were the case.

Q320 Nigel Mills: We did not quite get an answer about who you would like on the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group, did we?

Alan McDade: We think that the Military Covenant Reference Group should have someone on it from the veterans, not from the charities but someone who is a veteran. To be fair to a lot of the charities in Northern Ireland-SSAFA, Combat Stress and so on-they are probably all themselves exservice. No disrespect to them, but there should be a veteran, knowing veterans’ problems without the baggage of having to worry about Combat Stress issues or SSAFA issues. That person should come from the veterans community within Northern Ireland.

Q321 Nigel Mills: The Scots and the Welsh have both appointed a quite senior civil servant as their representative. Are you not thinking it should be someone from the Executive being appointed or a civil servant?

Alan McDade: If there is somebody from an exservice community in the Assembly in Northern Ireland then why not?

Q322 Naomi Long: We are talking about engagement with the Assembly, Executive and so on. We have had evidence from Ministers and others about some of the things they have been doing in terms of delivering the Covenant in practical ways, despite the logistical challenges around trying to do that more corporately within the Executive. If there was a policy effect in the armed services community generally in Northern Ireland, who would you raise it with? Who would be your first point of contact? Would you initially go to 38 Brigade or are there mechanisms for you to liaise directly with individual Ministers or with the Executive in some way, if it relates to a particular Department’s responsibilities?

Howard Brooker: As a regimental association, we are part of what we call the regimental family. The regiment still has a headquarters in Belfast and a regimental secretary who is a retired officer. He is a civilian but he is a retired officer. Our point of contact is probably with him or with the aftercare service. But regiments come and go, as we have seen. Looking to the future we would like to see something a wee bit more formal than that, so there will be continuity in the future. On top of that, the regimental secretary has a very small staff and a very wide field of responsibility. To be honest, the problems of a regimental association are well down his list of priorities. That is our first point of contact. Alan has raised the point about a victims commissioner. If you have somebody who is a focal point and has just that interest in his mind, it has to be a big advantage.

Q323 Naomi Long: Say for example that there is a housing issue or a health issue, is there any mechanism in place for you to raise that with the Minister, other than as any citizen would, by going through an elected representative and seeking a meeting on a onetoone basis?

Howard Brooker: You mean can we go directly to the Assembly?

Naomi Long: I mean is there a mechanism for you to do that?

Howard Brooker: Not that I am aware of.

Alan McDade: There is nothing formal but there could be ad hoc contact.

Q324 Naomi Long: We have heard evidence from the Executive, but do you have examples of problems that you have faced in an area where you have been able to engage with a Minister or Department and have those issues resolved? Is there anything specific you can think of that would demonstrate how even the ad hoc arrangements work for you at the moment?

Howard Brooker: There is nothing formally at the minute; it will just be through your local representative. We basically do not have any contact at all with the Executive or with the Assembly on a formal basis. Could I just make one point? I will probably raise the hackles of one Member’s neck when I say this but I had some contact with a victims group and I did some voluntary work for a year or two with them. One of the issues that came up was the Maze site. Victims across Northern Ireland from the military community were horrified that that particular piece of ground, which we reckon to be the most irreconcilable piece of land in Northern Ireland, was chosen as a site for a reconciliation centre. That view was put very firmly through victims groups, with a huge petition. Many of the people who signed it, the vast majority, were from the exservice community who said, "We do not want this." Our views were ignored. Things like that rankle a bit. A veterans commissioner would be somebody who could take that on and perhaps carry our views to the higher echelons of Government. We certainly do not have that access.

Q325 Naomi Long: You have highlighted one issue, and it is obviously a highly political one as well as a practical one. At a practical level, do you sense that there is more willingness for Ministers to engage around things like delivery of service to the community as opposed to the high level issues that would be around, such as political process stuff that is being dealt with in a slightly different way? At a practical level, do you sense that they are more open to engage with and to listen to the concerns that you would have about delivery of services?

Raymond Corbett: Everybody has a concern at the end of the day, but for us to get things done we have to go on a oneonone basis with the Minister, our local MP or our local councillor, but there is no mechanism, as Alan said, for us to go direct as a body. It has to be done as an individual case.

Q326 Naomi Long: If you do that, is it responsive?

Raymond Corbett: It can be at times. There are other times when you just hit that wall, as well you know.

Naomi Long: We have all been there. I appreciate that, thank you.

Q327 Mr Anderson: Can I ask you about the potential for a veterans commissioner? In your submission, you said that you thought a commission should be set up with legal powers. Can you tell us a bit more about what you envisage?

Alan McDade: When we put that forward in the written paper we were of the view that a veterans commissioner would be like all or some of the commissioners in the UK who have legal powers. I am thinking more along the lines of an energy regulator, who has the power to tell the energy suppliers to cut their prices, or their overheads, or that their profits are too big.

Mr Anderson: I wish you were right on that.

Alan McDade: That is my understanding. I think that if the veterans commissioner had the power to compel people to come and talk to him and tell him why certain things have not happened in respect of veterans in Northern Ireland, it would be at least a starting point. At the minute, as Raymond says, we hit a brick wall.

Q328 Mr Anderson: One of the things we have heard constantly from a number of witnesses is the worry that if it is seen that exservicemen and veterans are given what some people would see as preferential treatment-I am not necessarily agreeing with that-it could actually be detrimental to what you want to do. Do you not think that this could potentially be spun that way?

Alan McDade: I am not sure I am getting the drift of what your question is.

Mr Anderson: If you have a veterans commissioner, for example, and if someone cannot go to hospital they say, "I am going to go to the veterans commissioner and you are going to have to let me come into hospital", would that not mean effectively that someone can say, "Hang on here, I worked in a factory all my life and I cannot get into hospital, why should you"?

Howard Brooker: It is all based around need. Take, for example, someone going into hospital who is ill and has an operation carried out to cure their illness. Somebody down the road who has not got that illness cannot say, "That is preferential treatment." What we are asking for is something that is based on our need. It is all based around needs. We are not asking for something that is going to disadvantage somebody else or advantage us over that other person. What we are asking is just for something that deals with our need. We have different and specific needs.

Q329 Mr Anderson: I agree with that. I am not talking about people with differences, though. Take two people with identical needs, two guys who live next door to each other, one worked in a factory and one has been in the forces. The guy who worked in the factory is told by his GP that he cannot go to the hospital for six months. The guy next door is told that he cannot go for six months, but he can go to the commissioner, if it is set up, who can then instruct them and say, "You have to get this guy in because he’s in the forces." We are hearing constantly that if you do that it could be detrimental overall.

Howard Brooker: That issue obviously is there and will raise its head.

Q330 Mr Anderson: Who do you think should have responsibility for setting this up? Would it be the Executive, the UK Government? You are talking about legal powers.

Alan McDade: The Executive have set up victims commissioners in Northern Ireland, so obviously the mechanism is there. I am not aware totally of how it works, but the mechanism must be there if they can set up victims commissioners and so on.

Q331 David Simpson: I want to clarify some of the comments I made at the start with regard to the Royal British Legion and to SSAFA, in what I understood to be their concerns and objections. In the minutes of the last meeting I put the point to Colonel Gordon. I said, "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" on the care and welfare? Colonel Gordon’s reply was, "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…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?’"

Mr Maguire when he was here also said-in a question from Nigel Mills about whether this should be implemented from the Committee’s point of view, and whether we should be pushing forward with it-"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’" then to implement it and draw a line under it could cause difficulties down the line, as far as the care would be concerned. That is the point that I was trying to raise. I want to clarify that there seems to be a difference from what you are saying today, from the Royal British Legion’s point of view and from SSAFA’s point of view.

Chair: Do you want to respond to that point?

Alan McDade: In our submission we put the point that there is disjointery within Northern Ireland through our association. We are not linked to the Royal British Legion and we are not linked with any other regimental associations. Basically, we do not talk to each other and we do not know what the others are thinking.

David Simpson: That is a bit like politicians, but we won’t go there.

Alan McDade: That is why we put forward the idea of a veterans forum.

Q332 David Simpson: Howard, you were shaking your head.

Howard Brooker: Surely, the solution should be based on need, not whether it is going to polarise anything. To say that we will not do it because it is going to cause polarisation is, I think, a ridiculous attitude. It has to be based on need and the best way of dealing with that need, though certainly there are sensitivities.

Q333 Naomi Long: The point that was being raised with us was this. We had received evidence from a number of Executive Ministers who are, within their own Department, progressing elements of the Covenant. They are delivering in their Departments for armed services personnel. The concern that was being raised was that, if you push this and say every Department must do it and there has to be a corporate decision taken at the Executive table, and for this to be carried forward there has to be a reporting mechanism and all those other things, what could actually happen is that some of the good work that is going on under the radar, which is benefiting the armed services community, could then be out in the open and under attack from other members of the Executive who would be opposed to it taking place. It could, if it was then forced on to the Executive table, be stopped.

The issue raised was whether it was more important to have the mechanism agreed by the Executive and delivered in the same way as in the rest of the UK; or was it more important to have the services delivered by Ministers within their Departments, to the best of their ability where they can, in a different way from how it may be done in the rest of the UK but with the same objective of supporting the armed forces community. That was the issue. The question we were probing with them was: is there a risk, if you push hard on the Executive as a corporate entity, that you end up actually impeding some of the Ministers who are making progress in their own Departments quietly and getting on with the job of delivering? Frankly, there are other Ministers, you and I both know, for whom it does not matter how hard you push, they are not going to deliver. Is it better to let the ones who will get on with it?

That was the debate that was happening. I would just be interested to know, knowing the political landscape as well as the situation with the armed services, whether you see a risk, if this becomes a political football-for want of a better word-that it could jeopardise good work that is being done by the armed forces community, the Executive, the NIO and others around trying to support the armed services community, albeit in quite a unique situation.

Howard Brooker: I see exactly the point you are making but I would make several points. Firstly, there is no evidence that the good work going on under the radar would stop simply because you raise the issue.

Q334 Naomi Long: Sorry to cut across you, but there are a number of examples where Departments’ decisions have been called into the Executive, which would put them out to vote in the Executive, which would not be carried because of the different mechanisms there. That would be an example. It would not be on this issue; it would be on other issues.

Howard Brooker: Maybe so, but if people are doing it under the radar then it is under the radar and it can remain there. If people are doing it as a gesture of good will or whatever, that can still remain. Going back to the veterans commissioner, perhaps there is an alternative route by which the veterans commissioner could work with the Executive as a focal point. Maybe that is something that can get around the issue. We are not here to drive any particular mechanism; we are here to see that the job is done in the most efficient way.

Q335 David Simpson: I want to move on to another point in relation to the exservice forum. Mike Penning, the Minister of State for the NIO, recently convened a Northern Ireland veterans forum, which brought together various voluntary organisations and other stakeholders. Are you familiar with this forum, or were you invited to attend it?

Alan McDade: Firstly, we were not invited to it and secondly, we did not know it was happening. That is why, in our written submission, we advocated it but we did not know where or when it was happening. We have seen no output from what took place and we were not invited.

Q336 Lady Hermon: Have you written subsequently to ask to be invited to future meetings of the group?

Alan McDade: No ma’am, we have not because we do not know who to write to.

Lady Hermon: Write to Mike Penning MP, c/o the House of Commons. It is easy.

Alan McDade: I will do that.

Q337 David Simpson: In relation to the forum itself, whilst you were not invited to it, were not told where it was going to meet and do not know if you are going to be invited to future forums or whatever the case might be, if you were invited to the forum and if it were set up and implemented, what do you believe the benefits would be of that forum? I suppose it is hard to answer that; it is a hypothetical question.

Alan McDade: What would be our aspiration is, I think, a better word. Our aspiration would be that there would be coordination where all the disparate organisations that we have-the associations, the Navy, the Air Force-will be in one place at one time. A problem shared is a problem halved, and if it is pitched at the right level and the output coming from that forum is constructive and it helps the veterans community in Northern Ireland, we can then say it has been worthwhile.

If it is just a talking shop, then it is not worth it. We have to have outcomes from it; we have to have a plan and take action forward. That is what I would like to see from it. The veterans commissioner, hypothetically, would attend that, so he could hear from the grassroots-

David Simpson: Or she.

Alan McDade: Or she, whoops.

David Simpson: It is not PC to say that.

Q338 Lady Hermon: I have to add a quick PS. I think, in fairness to the Northern Ireland Office Minister Mike Penning, that would be his wish-that it is not just talking shop. He too would like to see constructive output. That is an aside. It brings us to a really important question, which is the final question for this session. It is in relation to Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which as I am sure you are aware puts an absolute duty on all public bodies, including all Government Departments, to promote equality of opportunity between various groups. We have taken evidence in many sessions that Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act means that preferential treatment cannot be given to exservicemen and women. Do you think Section 75 is actually being used as a smokescreen or an excuse for inertia or for not doing things as well, or better, in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom? Or do you think it really is a deterrent?

Alan McDade: I will make one point and try very hard to contribute. When the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was written and enacted, nobody had heard of the Military Covenant. There were certain optout clauses within the 1998 Act, for example, 50/50 police recruiting. When we move on 12 years or more, the Military Covenant principles are arrived at. Does that mean that all laws then have to reflect the Military Covenant? Does it mean that the 1998 Act has to be amended to give preferential treatment to exservicemen and women? That is a question for politicians.

Equally, our view-my view-would be that the Act does need to be reviewed, with a view to the fact that a serviceman, when he signs up, signs an unwritten cheque. He hopes that the cheque is not cashed, but that cheque says that it is his life. When he serves in the armed forces he comes back and is assimilated back into the community. The cheque has not been cashed, luckily for him, but unfortunately for quite a few others. That in itself means that in Northern Ireland as one part of the United Kingdom, the serviceman settling in Northern Ireland is being disadvantaged. That is the concern we have. Whether or not it is debated, politicised or not, I do not know. It does need to be reviewed such that the serviceman and the veteran settling in Northern Ireland is not disadvantaged compared with England, Scotland and Wales.

Q339 Lady Hermon: I do not want to put words into your mouth but if I understood you correctly, you would like to see Section 75 amended to give much greater priority to the care of exservice personnel.

Alan McDade: I think we would like to see Section 75 amended to give equality to a veteran who settles in Scotland, England or Wales and to one who settles in Northern Ireland.

Q340 Lady Hermon: Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act does not apply to Scotland, England and Wales; it only applies in Northern Ireland, just to make that point. But you would want to see it amended. Could I come back to Naomi Long’s point: do you not feel, given the reality of politics in Northern Ireland, that it might be exceedingly difficult to get agreement on the amendment of Section 75 to give priority to exservice personnel?

Howard Brooker: Of that there is no doubt.

Alan McDade: There is no doubt about that.

Howard Brooker: As I have said several times this afternoon, we are not here to drive a mechanism. We are here to achieve an end. To pick up on your last point, in my opening remarks I said, "By definition I am different, therefore the treatment of me as an exserviceman has to be different." For somebody to come along, complain and say "I am being treated differently" is simply a fact of life. I am different, therefore I need different treatment. That cannot be avoided.

Alan McDade: There is nothing stopping the other person who is complaining from signing that cheque of his life as well. He chose not to do it, but as servicemen and women we chose to do it.

Lady Hermon: You might find that some may say they served in a completely different type of army and that would get us into a very contentious situation.

Q341 Chair: We are out of time but thank you very much. It has been a very interesting session and has been very helpful to us. Thank you for coming.

Alan McDade: Thank you Mr Chairman and Members for having us this afternoon.

Chair: It was a pleasure, thank you.

Lady Hermon: It is very good of you to come, and very much appreciated.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Brigadier Rob Thomson, Commander, 38 (Irish) Brigade, gave evidence.

Q342 Chair: Brigadier, you are very welcome. There is no need for me to go through the introduction again; I think you were here for all of the last session. Thank you very much for joining us. Would you like to make a brief opening comment?

Brigadier Thomson: Mr Chairman, thank you very much indeed for your welcome and thank you for the opportunity to come and talk to your Committee. I am Commander of the 38 Brigade and I thought if I set out at the beginning what I am responsible for, it might help the Members.

I am responsible for providing largely discreet support to the civil powers. That includes bomb disposal experts and engineers who do an advanced search as we deal with instances of IEDs etc. I am responsible for delivering firm base, which is a phrase we use in the military to talk about support to families of soldiers and support to service personnel. I am responsible for the security of all the garrison: the serving, regular and reserve within Northern Ireland. I include civil servants within my responsibility, who are currently serving our Department. Finally, my job is to represent the Army in Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom. In some senses, that is broken down into two jobs. One is about connecting with Government at the local and regional level-district councils, Lisburn-but also to a degree at the Northern Ireland Executive, although that is measured and moderated carefully for me by the Northern Ireland Office. On a broader scale, it is to have the right community engagement approach across Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland, as we have contacts down in the south.

The second point is that I have served in Northern Ireland a number of times. I first served in 1991 and 1992, I returned in 1995 and have served in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012. I have lived in Northern Ireland for eight years. I have seen it in its darker days and I have seen it in areas of absolutely substantial progress today. I have specific responsibilities for the Royal Irish Aftercare Service, who report to me, and I then report through the chain of command up to the Ministry of Defence. I am responsible for the personnel recovery unit, which helps look after the wounded, injured and sick soldiers as they are being dealt with in their medical crisis and as they transition out into the world. Finally, I am responsible for what we call transition. That is a phrase we have established over the last 12 months and is about how we enable soldiers to leave the Army and find their feet in a proper way. Those are the three absolutely specific areas of responsibility that I have.

Chair: That was very useful, thank you very much.

Q343 Naomi Long: You are very welcome. I want to share with you some of what other people have said in the evidence we have taken. Effectively this could be summarised to say that people have said that the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland is being implemented in practice, although obviously it is being implemented differently than would be the case in GB. What are your views of that assessment?

Brigadier Thomson: The first thing to say, before I make any judgment, is that the veterans in Northern Ireland make a real contribution to society in Northern Ireland through their contribution to the workplace, their contribution to the community more widely, some of them through government, and also through charities, through sport etc. We are very proud of what the veterans in Northern Ireland do for the community.

I will make three points and then finish with another one. The ends matter more to me than the ways and the means. To me it is all about making sure that we deliver the outputs required by serving soldiers, their dependants and by the veterans community. We have to recognise that the environment in Northern Ireland is different and that means we need to have a regional solution that might be described as bespoke to Northern Ireland to make sure we deliver the ends. It is all about making sure that the ends are delivered correctly for our people. That leads us to a pragmatic, rather more lowkey approach to deliver the right sort of things for our people.

The second point is that I have a genuinely strong sense that the outputs and the ends of the Covenant are being delivered, largely. We are not complacent and I absolutely know that there are still areas in policy that we want to fix. As we heard this afternoon, there are individual cases where we need to pick up a lad, a lass or a family and deal with their particular medley of needs. When you look at things like the Service Pupil Premium, that is really good. It is better in Northern Ireland than it is anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We know that when we go through to the Ministry of Defence and make a pitch for funding delivered to schools in the whole of the UK, we won 15% of the funding. That, set against 3% of the population, is a significant achievement. Quite a few headmasters and headmistresses are really grateful for the way that that has been done. There are some monetary things that matter and have been successful.

We also have some resources that recognise the difference about Northern Ireland. We have a Families’ Employment Advisory Team, which provides advice to spouses of serving personnel and helps them find jobs in Northern Ireland. We have a Children Education Support Officer. She is absolutely brilliant. She is connected with almost all the schools with which we need to be connected. She is able to ensure that we deal with policy issues but also, if there is a crisis for a soldier moving into Northern Ireland, she can pick up that crisis and then work it through with a particular headmaster.

We have done some things with the charities. This was a mad idea, but 36 of the wives in Ballykinler, which is quite isolated, when we got there in 2007, did not drive. We came up with an idea with SSAFA, where SSAFA paid for half of the driving lessons for those wives. We saw a turnaround and gave people the ability to get out and about. That is for the serving community, but the Covenant is also about the serving community. It is not just about veterans, so that is really important.

There are problems. There are still frictions in policy terms; we have not cracked Alevels or first time tertiary degrees for service leavers and we have some work to do on that. We would say, overall, that we have a strong sense that people are having their needs met.

The third thing is that we have a really strong team. People have described Northern Ireland to me as either a village or a valley. I am not clever enough at geography to work out which it is but the connections within Northern Ireland are really quite incredible. Everybody knows somebody else. We have tried to take the same approach to delivering our support to the veterans. It is not perfect; I found out this afternoon that the Royal Irish Regiment is not aware of the veterans forum, although we have absolutely had Royal Irish officers on that forum. We try to do this together: it is high level Ministry of Defence and Northern Ireland Office as a broker into the Northern Ireland Executive, it is a bit about 38 Brigade, it is about the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, it is about our charities, it is about the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency. The important thing is to have a network that underpins the delivery of the outputs. That, I think, is where we want to try and get to, so that what we do is deliver the ends and outputs for serving soldiers, for their families and for the veterans.

Naomi Long: You briefly mentioned issues around education, particularly the tertiary degrees. I know that the Minister is in discussion with the MOD around trying to resolve some of those issues. There certainly seems to be goodwill in at least parts of the Executive to try to take this forward, but that is very helpful, thank you.

Q344 David Simpson: You are very welcome, Brigadier. We were told by the Ministry of Defence that the 38 Brigade was "the firm base, linking to all parts of Government" in Northern Ireland. There is a smile when I say that. Can you tell us how it works in practice and what is the reality of the relationship with the Executive?

Brigadier Thomson: It is not just about 38 Brigade; that is the first point. There is a network of people who have connections with veterans issues and serving soldiers. The Reserve Forces and Cadets Association are really important. I would describe them as our partner, in many ways, as we tackle these things. We tend to have a bottom-up, discreet conversation approach, rather than a topdown demand approach. Marching up the hill of Stormont dressed as I am would be utterly counterproductive.

David Simpson: I would not have a difficulty with it.

Brigadier Thomson: I recognise that gentle conversations work, either with a particular Executive Department, such as Health, where we have set up the Armed Forces Health Liaison Forum, or we might find it better to talk to an Education and Library Board. Actually we tend to be mostly in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area of responsibility, because that is where the regular garrison lives. It is a layered approach. Thirdly, we use the Northern Ireland Office as brokers because they have a much greater sense of and feel for politics in Northern Ireland and what the art of the possible is.

Q345 David Simpson: The term "discreetly", and all the rest of it, has been used quite a bit by the witnesses that we have had. In practice, doing your job, do you miss a central point of contact within the Northern Ireland Executive? That is someone who can be an advocate or a champion the same way they have been in Scotland or Wales; someone that you can go to and start talking about the issues to do with the Covenant or the welfare of veterans.

Brigadier Thomson: I do not miss that because the approach that we have at the moment is a broad sweep of contacts within Departments and some agencies, such as the Housing Executive. Because that is layered from strategic down through to tactical, from an Executive Department at the highest level, a Permanent Secretary potentially, all the way down to an Education and Library Board representative, we can, in a sense, go in the right place at the right time to achieve the right effect. If you did create-I must choose my words carefully-a magnate who would be somebody I could go to all the time, he would then have to take a topdown approach. That might put at risk some of the achievements that we might have.

Q346 David Simpson: What is your view on the evidence that we heard earlier about a victims commissioner.

Lady Hermon: Veterans commissioner.

David Simpson: A veterans commissioner, sorry.

Brigadier Thomson: That has to be judged by what terms of reference you give him and what powers you give him. It is too easy to say that we should have a veterans commissioner. It would all depend on what powers you tell him to fulfil and what authorities you give him to execute those responsibilities. On a spectrum, if he was just going to be a good friend who would socialise, get around and work through private conversations, that might be easily doable now. If, however, you gave him a set of responsibilities and a set of authorities that required pan-Northern Ireland Executive support, firstly, you would not achieve it because the voting system would make it incredibly difficult and, secondly, you could politicise my position as the military. We are making gentle, steady progress in all sorts of ways, both as a regular garrison but also, importantly, as a reserve garrison. I think we are moving in the right direction. As I look back at Northern Ireland, I am absolutely clear about how far we have come in Northern Ireland. That is really good. It is not a crashing bow wave of progress but we are gently moving forward. There is a danger that we could end up politicising-that is too simple a word, but I think you all know what I mean-with potentially adverse effects because there might be reactions that we would not necessarily want to see.

Q347 Mr Hepburn: What are the problems in accessing social housing in Northern Ireland for exservicemen?

Brigadier Thomson: The first problem is capacity because there is less social housing available. It is just a simple matter of volume; there is less social housing available. We have connections within the Housing Executive architecture that allow us to take particular issues about particular people in and then be signposted to the right part within the Housing Executive. I know that my Major, who helps run transition for soldiers, has dealt with four soldiers, who are leaving the Army, since November 2012. We are working with those. Three of them have been placed through the Housing Executive: one in a house and two in a hostel. The hostel is not perfect but that is what has been delivered. One lad is, at the moment, in the process of being placed and we have not quite got there, so there are three green and one amber.

We think we have the right connections. I absolutely recognise that they are probably more personal than institutional and that is something that we are going to continue to work at, to go from a personal "good bloke" relationship, which is sound in one sense, but does not give you any guarantee. There is a bit more work for us to do in that space.

Q348 Mr Hepburn: It all seems as though it is personal contact, persuasion and talking to people, rather than anything in black and white or in rules and regulations. Do you think it would be better if there were rules and regulations giving servicemen the same as servicemen have in the rest of the UK?

Brigadier Thomson: You make a very sensible point and that is where we want to get to. Interestingly, under the Armed Forces Liaison Health Forum there is a set of terms of reference that has been signed up to and agreed, which tells people what they are trying to achieve. That is a model that we would want to try to get to on the housing front. We have not got this absolutely perfect. We will operate with humility but also, hopefully, with energy to tackle the holes that we see in order to go from informal arrangements to formal arrangements. Sometimes formal arrangements can be discreet. They do not necessarily need to be shouted about from the rooftops but that is what we would try and do in the housing space.

Q349 Nigel Mills: Brigadier, you just mentioned the forum with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is a catchy title, isn’t it? Can you just tell us a little bit more about how that forum works and what benefits you think that forum has actually brought?

Brigadier Thomson: It is a forum, like any other forum, which brings together the stakeholders who have an interest. I suppose we are the customer in one sense, but we also have the Royal Irish Aftercare Service in that forum. There are a range of customers who meet with the deliverers-the Department of Health. They have a set of terms of reference, which look at areas of action in order to make sure that there is no disadvantage afforded to service personnel and veterans as a result of their military service. They take a range of issues that they will try and deal with. One of the current issues is genome technology, where it has just been agreed that the Northern Ireland health service will deliver support to genome technology, which is what you would get if you lost a leg or a limb in Afghanistan. Although that is going to be funded by NACMO, it is an example of good news among that forum. It very much focuses on trying to deliver outputs.

Q350 Nigel Mills: In Northern Ireland, there are still a couple of areas of healthcare where residents are behind the rest of the UK. IVF treatment is the one that is usually cited. Do you think progress is being made in equalising those issues as well or is that a step too far?

Brigadier Thomson: The important thing in the IVF example is that the solider is not disadvantaged set against his fellows in Northern Ireland. That is the most important thing. In Northern Ireland you are entitled to one set of treatment for your IVF treatment. You do get more elsewhere. Now, no serviceman has come to me asking for IVF treatment in the time that I have been Commander. Having asked the question, we have no records of anybody wanting it. If a serviceman who had been injured in service through a dreadful IED required IVF treatment, I am pretty certain that we would take that case and provide a bespoke solution, probably pulling in the service charities, because that would probably be an appropriate use of them. The important point is that the lad in uniform is not disadvantaged set against his peer in Northern Ireland. That becomes a perception. In England he might get three or in Scotland he might get two; I cannot remember the figures exactly. What we try to do is make sure that there is no disadvantage to servicemen within the context of Northern Ireland.

Q351 Nigel Mills: Taking you back to the forum, do you think it would be helpful if any other Departments of the Executive had a similar forum? I do not know if that has been tried in any other Departments.

Brigadier Thomson: It is a model that works and has merit for us to examine and apply to other Departments, noting that sometimes, for example, on education-because the regular Army is based in the south-east corner of Northern Ireland-we might want to have a forum not with the Minister for Education but with the South Eastern Education and Library Board. They will understand our equities much better. Why go one level up when you do not need to? That model is a very good model. Taking things away from the personal and informal to something more formal will be something that we can explore gently, over time and steadily, and build on success. In some senses, success in one Department will inspire another Department to help us in that respect.

Q352 Chair: Can I just come in on the health issue? Throughout England, regardless of what any Government says, there is a postcode lottery for health services. IVF is probably the best example. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommend three free cycles, whereas that is not delivered across England at all, so there are differences anyway for nonservice personnel. How do you make sure that service personnel do not lose out? Are you comparing it with what is available in Northern Ireland or extrapolating across and looking at what is available in England? It is a difficult one because there is a postcode lottery even throughout England. Do you understand what I mean?

Brigadier Thomson: Absolutely. There are two comparators. In the first instance, we are comparing people within the context of Northern Ireland. That is where we want to make sure there is no disadvantage. I absolutely understand that there has been some affirmative action by different parts of Government in England, mostly at the local level, which will make it look as though a serviceman gets advantage there when set against Northern Ireland. It is difficult, sometimes, to compare that. Often these get portrayed in microsenses, and we should try and broaden the picture. There are some things that work really well for servicemen in Northern Ireland that do not work as well for people on the mainland. We need to see the broader picture rather than just concentrate on the micro one. We will hunt out ruthlessly any disadvantage that we find and apply the right levers to meet the ends that are appropriate. That is what we will always try to do.

Q353 Lady Hermon: Brigadier Thomson, I have one little point of clarification. Those of us who live in Northern Ireland actually believe that we live on the mainland and the rest of us is connected to the United Kingdom.

Brigadier Thomson: I am sorry.

Lady Hermon: Moving on swiftly. It is okay, we forgive you.

David Simpson: People do make that mistake.

Brigadier Thomson: I am very clear that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, it is just a different part of the United Kingdom.

Lady Hermon: No, it is just that we are the main part. I was just teasing you, slightly. I actually mean it of course. In the evidence we had in the previous session, we dedicated quite a bit of our time to the aftercare service for the RIR Home Battalion. I do not suppose, off the top of your head, that you would know the cost.

Brigadier Thomson: Yes. The first year of operating was £2.2 million. In the last financial year the costs had fallen to £900,000.

Lady Hermon: Fallen to £900,000?

Brigadier Thomson: Yes, because demand had gone down to a large degree.

Q354 Lady Hermon: That being the case, could we have it extended? We have taken a lot of evidence about extension, and the cost has gone down dramatically. I am astonished, because I had actually guessed £5 million and thought that was a bit moderate. Now that it is well under £1 million, you could not possibly gainsay extending that to others.

Brigadier Thomson: I believe that the Royal Irish Aftercare Service is a bespoke solution to meet a bespoke set of needs for those incredibly gallant people who fought with distinction and now live in the country in which they operated. That is the watershed for me. That is why the Royal Irish Aftercare Service is absolutely crucial for those people. There are issues of trust and confidence that will play out in the personal security space, which means that when we give them a welfare solution, a psychological solution or a physiotherapy solution, they need to know that when they are going into that space they are going there with complete confidence about their personal security.

Interestingly, I think it is a testimony to the quality of the people who have served in the Royal Irish that demand has gone down. We have removed the employment capability that the aftercare service had. I do not have that in the figures but when it was set up, it was about enabling people to move from the military service into other jobs. They had quite a bit of work to do in the early days, giving people advice about jobs. Six years on, most people are now employed. There are other ways we can deliver support to people who might need employment advice now, so that chunk of the capability has been taken out. We do not end up with a package of money and then decide to spend it on broader things. We end up with a requirement, which is costed across Government. Then, if those costs fall, that is an advantage, I expect, to the Department of State. We will keep under review the Royal Irish Aftercare Service.

We have just started a pilot where wounded, injured and sick soldiers, who I would judge to be the people most at risk as they transition out of military service, are being looked after by the Royal Irish Aftercare Service. In many ways, the Royal Irish Aftercare Service are a signposting organisation who are a very important part of our network as we look after wider veterans. I am not convinced by the argument to make it an aftercare service for everybody. This might be a bit simplistic but you could see the Northern Ireland Executive say, "Okay, the aftercare service will deal with all veterans’ issues and we do not have anything to do." I do not think that is right. I want, over time, the position of veterans in Northern Ireland to change. I think it will be more difficult for a soldier in the Royal Irish Home Service and UDR for his position in society to change over time than it will be for an Irish Guardsman who has only served in Afghanistan. I think that in Northern Ireland people will make those sorts of distinctions. We would want the Northern Ireland Executive to pick up its responsibilities to the veterans over time.

Q355 Lady Hermon: With the greatest respect, I have to say that I hold in the highest esteem any person who goes off to serve in Afghanistan. It is not just that they have "only served in Afghanistan." I understand what has been presented as a very coherent argument but you must also be sympathetic to those who are coming back from what I would describe as hell on earth-Afghanistan it is called-to Northern Ireland. Does the aftercare service package extend to those people or not?

Brigadier Thomson: I have served in Afghanistan with my boys, and if the needs of those heroes who are coming back from Afghanistan are not being met in Northern Ireland then we should think about extending the Royal Irish Aftercare Service. I would claim that, as I said at the beginning, broadly the needs of veterans are being met in Northern Ireland and it matters not whether you are an Irish Guardsman who has come back from Afghanistan or a Royal Signaller who grew up in a different part of Northern Ireland, because those are being met by extant arrangements.

One of the most important things that we have set up is transition. Transition is a system that is a virtual network, but I have a Major in my headquarters who runs transition. To soldiers who are leaving the Army, anywhere, we are saying, "Come to Northern Ireland and do the career transition partnership programme in Northern Ireland. Do not go and find out about employment in your local education centre or local CTP organisation, because they will not understand the nuances of Northern Ireland. You need to come to our excellent team in Aldergrove and they will help you." We run transition fairs twice a year. The Housing Executive are at our transition fairs. We have education people at our transition fairs. A lad who is leaving the Army can bring his wife. All of the service charities are there. We even have the TA there, to persuade him to join the TA after he leaves the regular Army because we are trying to build the Territorial Army, and Northern Ireland has huge success in that space. We have the educators there and we have employment advice.

That is the system we have set up. It is quite new and has only been in place for about a year. That, I think, will allow people coming back into Northern Ireland out of regular service to find their feet in a really sensible and wise way. Actually, many people coming back to Northern Ireland are coming back to communities that they know really well. Most soldiers who settle in Northern Ireland are coming back to communities that could not be more supportive. If you settle in Lisburn, it is red carpet treatment when you arrive back.

Q356 Lady Hermon: It is the same in North Down, I have to say.

Brigadier Thomson: North Down was second on my list.

Lady Hermon: That is really informative. We had not received evidence about that wider service. That is really helpful.

Brigadier Thomson: We would be delighted to explain formally about transition. If it would help the Committee I can write a two page note to explain the left and right of arc-using, I apologise, careless military language.

Lady Hermon: That would be exceedingly helpful indeed. You are going to have to please forgive me. I have another commitment at four o’clock. I am not leaving in a huff because of the reply, quite the opposite. I am really impressed by the evidence you have given. Thank you so much. So much of it was new to us.

Q357 Naomi Long: In terms of the engagement of the UK Government through the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office, do you believe that they are taking an active enough role in implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland and delivering on their responsibilities in that regard?

Brigadier Thomson: I think it is not just about the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office. You will be bored of my phrase about partnership, but this is a partnership that we deal with. The MOD are very seized of it. The Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans was out in Northern Ireland just before the snow; we just got him to Aldergrove airport. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland has been very active, very energetic and very supportive. He brings real empathy to the serviceman’s predicament because he has served in the military.

It is not just about the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office. I like to think that we are tackling the issues with energy and that we have ideas such as transition, and pilots with the wounded, injured and sick soldiers in the Royal Irish Aftercare Service, to show that we are absolutely on the front foot.

One of the other ideas that we put together, as a result of Mr Penning’s veterans forum, which built on some existing arrangements, is that we will go back to him in June with a pamphlet.1 That pamphlet will have the responsibilities of every charitable organisation and every Government agency, the Housing Executive and places like that on a page. That will tell you what their responsibilities are, what they do and what they do not do. It will give you the website and the contact number. Our desire is to get that in every doctor’s surgery, every pharmacy output and every lawyer’s office.

My worry is not that the system is not there; it is about connecting the man or lady who needs it with that system. You have a fundamental problem with soldiers, it does not matter whether they are male or female, in that we are proud people. We do not call early for help because it is not in our DNA to do it. What we have to do is get out there a system that is soaked in the environment in Northern Ireland and is active enough to be able to send people to us. We want every MLA’s constituency office to have this pamphlet so that when somebody comes in, even if they will not declare to somebody that they happen to be a veteran, they will pick it up and see, "That is my crisis and that is where I go to." It is about passage of information, to a degree. We have more work to do there; I can see that very starkly this afternoon, having heard the evidence of the Royal Irish Association.

Naomi Long: That would be hugely helpful. I think that David would probably agree about some kind of pamphlet, even for constituency offices. There are exservice personnel who come to us regularly with a whole host of issues, not always related to being exservice personnel. Some of them will be standard problems that they have but that are often complicated by that. For example, if they have particular reasons why they cannot live in a particular neighbourhood they are often reluctant to disclose that to some of the statutory organisations because of fears for their security and so on. It can complicate the issue of how you actually resolve their problem. Having some kind of pamphlet there for them to pick up, to give them reassurance that you are supportive of armed service personnel who are coming in and seeking that guidance, they may feel more able to be open and free with you about it. Also, to give them that bit of extra information, so that they can then judge what to share or not share with different parts of the system, would be really helpful.

Q358 David Simpson: I know you have many roles but do you act as a central point through which Army charities can come to you, raise the issues and concerns that they have, and then that is fed back to the MOD?

Brigadier Thomson: I can absolutely act as a filter. They can bring an issue to me or they can go direct to the MOD. SSAFA or the Army Families Federation have their own hierarchies. My regional co-ordinator for the AFF will go through her Army Families Federation headquarters all the way up to the Chief Executive, who will probably talk to the Adjutant General or will go and buttonhole the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans. So they have two avenues.

We have set up the veterans forum with the Minister. It met in January. There was a second meeting after that. We are now meeting again in June at working level, to bring a draft of this pamphlet together, so that is our principal output. At that meeting, these people can bring issues to us. We engage with them all the time. I sit on quite a few of their boards. ABF will ask me into their regional meetings quite willingly, so we have a pretty good purview on what I would call the operating picture of charities in Northern Ireland.

Q359 David Simpson: I take it then that you sit on the forum.

Brigadier Thomson: Yes. The Minister for Northern Ireland will quite quickly point at me.

Q360 David Simpson: I take it then that you will take it on board that the Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment was not invited to the forum and you will see to it personally that they will-

Brigadier Thomson: We will have to have a debate about whether we want regimental associations on the forum, because the Royal Irish Aftercare Service, which is about delivering-

David Simpson: That is not the answer I am looking for.

Brigadier Thomson: I have already said to-

Andrew Percy: You should have a meeting at the very least.

Brigadier Thomson: Actually I bumped into them on the way in and I said to the Chairman of the Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment to please come to my headquarters.

David Simpson: I will say that they are behind you.

Brigadier Thomson: We will keep under review the membership of that forum. We are delighted to expand our relationships out to the regimental associations. There are many more regimental associations than just the Royal Irish, but they do have the largest equity in Northern Ireland.

Q361 David Simpson: You will at least start by meeting them.

Brigadier Thomson: Yes, we already exchanged cards on the way in, and my deputy is a Royal Irish officer.

Q362 Andrew Percy: I am sorry for being late. On the pamphlet idea, I think Nigel will confirm that for those of us who are MPs on the other mainland-

Brigadier Thomson: If you could not remind me of my sins I would be very grateful.

Andrew Percy: I have to say that, as a Yorkshire MP we would rather not be part of the mainland because then we would not have to share a border with that place they call Lancashire.

Chair: I am a Lancastrian, but please carry on Andrew.

Andrew Percy: So it does exist then? I have obviously never visited myself.

I think the pamphlet idea would be useful for MPs across the whole country actually, because it is a big issue for all of us when we have exforces personnel.

Brigadier Thomson: Those pamphlets are in place in some parts of the UK.

Q363 Andrew Percy: On the veterans forum, I agree with David’s point: I hope there would be that meeting with the regimental association. There has been one meeting of the forum up until now, has there? The first one was 5 February; how many times has it met since then?

Brigadier Thomson: It met with the Minister of State once and it will meet with him again at the six month point, which will be once we have got through the G8, so probably at the back end of June/early July. The date is not absolutely fixed yet, but we are all meeting on 12 June at working group level.2 My principle is that we get direction from the high level, we then take it away, work out what we are going to do about it, bring some work back, sort it out at our level, and then present it.

Q364 Andrew Percy: We now know that you will have met with the regimental association before 12 June, which is excellent news.

Brigadier Thomson: Yes.

Andrew Percy: What is the time frame on the actual reporting back of the forum in terms of gaps in provision? How long is this process expected to take?

Brigadier Thomson: We have not set up a very complicated reporting process, so we will take issues as they appear. We are not delaying issues to a six-monthly cycle. If there is something that comes up we will absolutely put that back to the Ministry of Defence so that they understand what we are doing. In fact, the Ministry of Defence Covenant team will be on that veterans forum. London is going forward into the very front trenches, as it were, to understand what is going on in Northern Ireland, because of those nuances and the need to make sure this is done properly. They will always be at that veterans forum.

Q365 Andrew Percy: So the process is that the forum meets, gaps or issues are highlighted along the way, they are then actioned and there is not going to be a big report at the end of this process saying, "Here are the following gaps." On that basis, who takes ownership, once a gap has been identified, for filling the gap and driving it forward? Who is then the lead on that? Given what you said earlier about a bottomup approach, and what you have just said now about it going back to the MOD to drive it-which would seem to be a bit of a topdown approach-I am just wondering who actually takes ownership and who monitors how that gap is filled?

Brigadier Thomson: I suppose it depends on what the issue is. I know what my responsibilities are. If it is about a Royal Irish Aftercare Service issue, I am responsible and I will solve that issue. If it is about transition, I will solve that issue because I am responsible for it. There will be other people who will be responsible, such as the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, who sit on that forum, and they will take away issues that they are responsible for. What we are trying to do is create a partnership approach. We can enable some things for SPVA simply through our contacts and our ability to get a network in place. Each organisation has quite clear responsibilities. They would take actions away from that forum to implement them and put them in place.

Q366 Andrew Percy: It is difficult to say, but the risk with any forum is that it then becomes a talking shop.

Brigadier Thomson: There will be actions and there will be records of decisions. We decided last time to produce this pamphlet. That is an output that was agreed with the Minister of State last time around. We will deliver that back to him and then it will get published. People’s feet will be held to the fire. We like staff actions, we like records of decisions and we will, as a first agenda item, go to the records of decisions from the previous meeting to make sure that they have been tackled.

Q367 Naomi Long: This is the final question. It relates to an ongoing debate throughout the inquiry around what the barriers are to implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in a meaningful way in the Northern Ireland context. One of the barriers that has been suggested is the equality legislation, and specifically Section 75, the argument being that to give people priority treatment on the basis that they have been a member of the armed services would be a breach of the equality regulations. Obviously, that is one interpretation. Others have given evidence that they do not believe that that is the case and it is in some way a red herring or a smokescreen, on the issue that in fact the Armed Forces Covenant only requires people to have their situation made equal with what it would have been had they not been members of the armed forces, so to suffer no disadvantage, the action that would be taken within Departments would be legal in Northern Ireland.

Have you had any experience dealing with that specific issue around equality duties and the equality law? Have you any experience of where that has been an impediment. Do you have any view as to whether that is an impediment to implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland more fully? Do you not believe that it is and it can be effectively worked around?

Brigadier Thomson: I am not a legal expert. I am a soldier, not a politician, but I have a view about the political context because it is my job to understand the environment in which I operate. I think, in some senses, these two bits of legislation can be complementary. The Armed Forces Covenant is about ensuring that there is no disadvantage to service personnel. The second principle is about where there is particular need to take care of them in a better way.3 Section 75 is, as I understand it, a fundamental part of the Belfast Peace Agreements from 1998 onwards. I absolutely recognise how far we have come and we need to preserve that progress; that is my slightly intrepid comment as a soldier, looking at the politics from below. That is about promoting equality of opportunity.

I think we can reconcile those two things when we focus on the ends. There are some things where, if you were to be a real legal theorist, you could say that the Service Pupil Premium in Northern Ireland is almost intolerable in law because actually it provides some advantage to service personnel, but we have a broad enough approach to be able to allow us to prosecute in that particular way.4

It is about the ends and not about the ways and means. I am going to continue, as a man responsible for outputs, to focus on my outputs. If the ways and means about delivering those outputs became such a hurdle that they were working to the disadvantage of service personnel, we would make noise about it. At the moment, I do not see it as something that I cannot get over; I can generally work my way around it.

Q368 Chair: It has been extremely useful and very interesting. Thank you very much for joining us.

Brigadier Thomson: I apologise for my "mainland" comment.


[1] Note from witness: The date is yet to be fixed, will be in the summer.

[2] Note from witness: This has now been changed to 20 June.

[3] Note from witness: This principle relates to wounded servicemen.

[4] The Service Personnel Pupil Premium (paid by Dept of Education through the Common Funding Formula), is paid directly to schools to assist with the rebalancing of educational needs as a consequence of parental postings, allows for educational provision to be maintained within the classroom without disruption to the development of the remaining children bringing the service children educational standard to a comparable level to that of their NI peers. A pupil premium is awarded to a number of groups who require additional educational support such as, Newcomer children, Roma children and Irish Traveller children.

Prepared 16th July 2013