As a member of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, I welcome the publication of the report by Lord Ashcroft on the review of the transitioning process for Armed Forces personnel moving from their military careers to civilian life at the end of their service.
My colleague Brenda Hale MLA brought the review team to Northern Ireland and they have made two key recommendations that directly affect this part of the UK:
1. Amend Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to enable Service Leavers and veterans to receive the recognition and provision they deserve.
2. Appoint a security-vetted Armed Forces Champions in Northern Ireland to enable Service Leavers and veterans to claim entitlements without fear for their personal security.
The DUP has previously sought to have the law on Section 75 amended in Parliament and we endorse both of these recommendations by Lord Ashcroft. We urge the Government to take forward these and other key recommendations from the report. Our Armed Forces veterans deserve nothing less than full and faithful implementation of the Military Covenant.
In his role as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Veterans’ Transition Lord Ashcroft has considered the policies and provision for Service Leavers in areas including education, training, employment, health, housing, welfare, finance and information. He has also looked at the operation of Service charities and the role of advocacy, including the delivery of the Armed Forces Covenant. The independent Review has consulted widely with the Armed Forces, the MOD and other government bodies, industry and the Third Sector, and has heard directly from hundreds of Service Leavers about their experience of transition. Lord Ashcroft’s principal recommendations are as follows:
- This Review has looked in detail at many aspects of transition including training, employment, health, housing, welfare and finance. These are discussed at length in the following chapters, with specific recommendations relating to each. For the individual, however, these factors are not isolated from each other – what happens in one area can affect all the others. That being the case, a number of consistent themes emerged from which I have drawn the following broad conclusions about the transition process and the experience of Service Leavers.
- Transition is important for the Armed Forces and society as a whole, not just the individual. As I set out in the Introduction, more successful transition from the Forces will mean higher-quality candidates wanting to join, creating a virtuous circle that helps recruitment, retention, the reputation of the Services and the drive to increase the number of Reserves. It also represents a better return on the investment the public has made in training and developing Service personnel.
- There is no shortage of provision for Service Leavers – and most do well. A great deal is being done to support Service Leavers by government agencies, charities and the private sector, as well as the Armed Forces themselves. This includes training opportunities, healthcare provision, welfare support and much else. Most Service Leavers make a successful transition – the great majority who look for work find it, and few experience serious problems.
- Preparation by the individual is essential – and good information is key. However much provision is put in place, perhaps the most important factor in a successful transition is the mindset of the individual Service Leaver. There is no substitute for planning and preparation, not just in the weeks and months before leaving the Forces but over the long term. Those who start to think about their next job or home, how they will budget and other practicalities only weeks before their departure are not surprisingly more likely to have problems. Information is essential to effective planning, but it is often hard to find, poorly presented and confusing. Ensuring personnel and Service Leavers get good information at the right time about transition and civilian life is therefore vital.
- The Service Leavers most likely to struggle get the least help. It is often assumed that the longer a Service career, the harder will be the eventual return to civilian life. The truth is almost the reverse of this. Early Service Leavers, who have served up to four years (but may during that time have completed operational tours in places like Afghanistan), receive only the most basic support for transition and are the most likely to experience unemployment and other problems. Improving outcomes for these Service Leavers is essential to improving transition overall, and will be to the benefit of the Armed Forces and the country as a whole.
- Public perception of Service Leavers needs to be changed. Though a small number do have problems and need special provision, Service Leavers as a whole begin new careers, enjoy good health and are no more likely to suffer PTSD, become homeless, commit suicide or go to prison than the rest of the population. Yet there is a widespread public perception that veterans are likely to be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their time in the Armed Forces. This in itself constitutes an unnecessary extra hurdle for Service Leavers, restricting their opportunities by lowering expectations of what they can do. There is a good story to tell.
These broad conclusions, together with a number of more detailed findings, have given rise to a number of recommendations which I have set out in detail in the relevant chapters (and collected together for convenience in the next section). The most important of these recommendations are as follows:
- The MOD and the Armed Forces should be more proactive in changing perceptions of Service Leavers, promoting a more positive and accurate view, ensuring problems and incidents are seen in their proper context, and challenging misleading or partial information in the media and elsewhere. This should be supported by the establishment of a curated research hub bringing together peer-reviewed academic research about veterans and transition, ensuring information is easy to access and identifying gaps for further research.
- All personnel should complete an online Personal Development Plan, beginning at the end of basic training. The PDP should include a portfolio of the individual’s education, skills and achievements; a plan for their development, including long-term career aspirations and the qualifications required; education modules on “life skills” including housing and financial management; and a checklist to ensure the individual is considering future needs and taking the actions required. Personnel would be monitored by their commanders in completing the PDP, which will inculcate a sense of responsibility for personal development and ultimately make for a smoother and more successful transition.
- All Service Leavers who have completed basic training should be eligible for the full transition support package. Currently, only those who have served six years or more qualify for the full resettlement service offered by the Career Transition Partnership. Early Service Leavers, who have served up to four years, are the most likely to experience unemployment and other problems and get only the most basic transition support.
- A new work placement scheme should be created in partnership with industry, to give Service Leaders practical experience of civilian work. This would replace the current system of resettlement training courses. The Career Transition Partnership should also be given a direct incentive for job finding, such as payment by results, under the new contract to begin in 2015. This should ensure sufficient attention is paid to the more junior and less qualified, of whom there will be larger numbers once the full resettlement package is made available to all Service Leavers.
- A single 24/7 contact centre should be established by the Veterans Welfare Service and Forces charities, with a single telephone number and website address to be given to all Service Leavers on a new Veteran’s Card. Clients would be transferred immediately to the appropriate person, and a comprehensive case management and tracking system common to all participating charities would be established. This would encourage collaboration within the charity sector, end the confusing array of charity information Service Leavers currently encounter, and ensure those who need help can find it straight away without having to make several calls or being passed from one organisation to another.
- A Directory of Armed Forces Charities should be created, including organisations which meet quality criteria on governance and effectiveness and, in the case of healthcare charities, comply with the relevant NHS, NICE or CQC guidelines. Inclusion in the Directory would be necessary for charities to be eligible for public funding or referral from public agencies. The Directory would be run by the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations (COBSEO).