Whither welfare

Speech by Andrew Robathan, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Andrew Robathan

Thank you General Fry, and good morning.

This is my second speech in a week to a RUSI audience.

Last week, I spoke at the Land Warfare Conference.

This week, it’s the ‘Whither welfare’ conference.

I took the precaution of looking at RUSI’s programme for next week.

But I suspect that, and I quote, ‘The Great Power Struggle in East Asia, 1944 to 1950’, will thrive without the Robathan touch..!

I am pleased to speak at this important conference as the new defence minister responsible for service personnel.

The first duty of government is the defence of the realm, and we have a moral responsibility to look after those in our armed forces, particularly when they are prepared to risk life and limb on our behalf.

As the Prime Minister said in Afghanistan last week, we want to create an atmosphere in which we, as a nation, “back, revere, and support our military.”

There has actually never been a formal document setting out precisely what this means.

And that’s why, for the first time, this government will create a tri-service military covenant.

The Prime Minister is passionate about this.

It will be the foundation of the new government’s far reaching strategy for, and obligations to, our service men and women, their families, and former service personnel.

It’s long overdue.

And specific policy measures are already flowing from this, for example, last week’s doubling of the operational allowance, though it hasn’t attracted the coverage I wish it had.

More broadly, we will ensure that the armed forces have the support they need, and that former service personnel and their families are treated with the dignity they deserve.

For example, we will ensure that entitled service personnel’s rest and recuperation periods can be maximised.

We will provide support for former service personnel to study at university.

And we’ll ensure that injured personnel are treated in a dedicated military ward, according to clinical need.

But when it comes to welfare, all of us across government, not just the Ministry of Defence, have a major role to play.

This moral responsibility does not rest solely on government shoulders.

All of the organisations that you represent here today have that responsibility too, and that, I guess, is why you’re here.

In this country, we have developed a strong voluntary and charitable sector over many years; churches, hospitals, and schools are all good examples, if you look in history.

Headley Court itself, which I guess almost everyone here has visited, would not have existed without generous, charitable collections and donations.

We must ensure that this tradition continues by encouraging people to accept their own social responsibility for strengthening the respect between the armed forces and society.

In my view, that’s an excellent example of what we mean in the new government by the ‘Big society’.

The contribution of those who make our voluntary and charitable sectors such a success often goes unheralded.

So let me take this opportunity to thank all of those involved, many of them here, for their inspiration, expertise, and hard work.

Your help is invaluable.

Of course, times change, and the way we live our lives has changed swiftly as well, dramatically over the last 50 years I would suggest.

None of us is bound by these changes, but we must not be oblivious to them.

In medicine, for example, thanks to advances in technology and care, people who would have died in earlier conflicts are now being saved.

This is very welcome yet brings with it further challenges, including greater numbers of people who need expert care and rehabilitation.

And that places a greater emphasis on through life support.

Our forces families have different expectations and needs from those of even a generation ago.

For instance, many more spouses and partners want and expect to work, which means the demand for childcare has increased, mirroring the rest of society.

And the stereotypical image of what it means to be a veteran, an ex-serviceman, is being challenged for the first time in a generation, as the 20 or even 30 year old veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan take their place in civilian society.

To keep up, we must focus on improving quality and collaboration, we must put people first, and we must reduce duplication of effort and red tape.

We should do so with some core principles in mind.

When the Defence Secretary spoke here on Monday, he summed up the new government’s approach to the SDSR, the ‘Strategic defence and security review’, in three words: relevance, realism, and responsibility.

Let me concentrate on the third, responsibility.

It’s our responsibility, as a nation, to give full support to the brave men and women of our armed forces in return for the sacrifice they are prepared to make in our name.

Of course, life in the armed forces can be rewarding, and fun.

But our people also willingly accept the need for selfless duty, often involving dangerous operations that can result in terrible personal sacrifice, and they accept also the restrictions that service life entails.

Some of these conditions apply, of course, to their families as well.

But we will never forget that our people are the best weapon in our arsenal.

Even the most advanced technology, or bit of kit, we possess is rendered meaningless without good people.

We must ensure that they have what they need to do what we ask of them, and that they and their families are looked after properly during and after service.

When people join the armed forces, they don’t cease being citizens.

So it really irritates me when I hear that they can’t easily open a bank account because they’re moving around, or their families can’t access their school of choice.

Take the issue of voter registration, which is very dear to my heart because I made a great fuss about it before the 2004/5 General Election.

In my view, the last government made changes to service registration that did not benefit our service personnel and their families.

Basically, there was no thought given to the impact the new arrangements would have on armed forces personnel.

We will change the rules so that service personnel have to register only once as a Service voter on the electoral register, as long as they are a member of the services.

And we will remove obstacles that may prevent service families from registering to vote, taking account of their particular needs.

Regarding families, operations in Afghanistan have undoubtedly increased the stresses and strains of family life.

And those left behind are of course worried about those on operations.

But if our service men and women are worried about issues back home, and modern communications mean this is far more likely than in years gone by, then their minds may not be fully on the job in hand.

And that means that there are therefore operational and moral reasons for doing all we can to support forces families.

And that’s why I was keen to hear the views of the Heads of the Families Federations when I met them yesterday, and they told me in clear terms what families wanted.

I welcomed their practical suggestions to reduce the inevitable burden that separation entails.

Then there is the question of special treatment.

Service personnel are victors not victims.

They are proud people who deserve more respect.

They are also special, and there are circumstances that demand special consideration because of their service in the armed forces, the injured and the bereaved are two very obvious examples.

So those are the principles we should all bring to policy development: in day to day life, a level playing field with the rest of society; for serving their country, special treatment where and when necessary.

And all this is underpinned by the nation’s responsibility to those who serve their country.

Let me give you two examples that illustrate the breadth of the challenge and, I believe, a core part of the solution.

First, the challenge.

Can we be sure that everyone is aware of the wide range of support available, across all arms of government and, of course, the voluntary and charitable organisations?

We don’t need to reinvent what works perfectly well already.

We just need to co-ordinate and communicate it better.

For example, there is now a national phone number that is open to all.

Our collective challenge is to ensure that no-one misses out on the services they need.

And second the solution which, basically, is working together.

Working together, means harnessing expertise at all levels.

It means central government departments working together (the last government used to talk about holistic government, I’m not sure it worked); central government working with local government and devolved administrations; and all working with the voluntary and charitable sectors.

An excellent example is the army recovery capability, the ARC, which is aimed at helping those who are injured or ill to return to service, or transition to life outside the armed forces.

The MOD is contributing funding and service personnel; Help for Heroes (and Bryn Parry’s here) will provide the capital to build Personnel Recovery Centres (which will be open to all three Services); the Royal British Legion will cover the initial running costs; and I heard from Bryn this morning that Help for Heroes will also fund courses.

Other central government departments, and local government services, will also have a role if injured Service personnel leave the armed forces and require support in their local areas.

Elsewhere, we will ensure that we have an excellent operational welfare package.

We can’t promise to provide every last modern convenience.

But where technologies have become mainstream, for example internet access, we’ll do our level best to provide them.

Let me also mention those whose mental health has suffered as a result of service.

The Department of Health and devolved administrations, with support from the MOD, are already undertaking community mental health pilots for former service personnel at six NHS Trusts across the UK.

These arrangements make it easier to seek and access help if they have concerns about their mental health.

We are working closely with Combat Stress in this area, and will analyse the results closely.

I look forward to discussing the issues next month with Alex Neil, Minister for Housing and Communities in the Scottish government.

But we will go further.

We are strongly committed to creating effective, through-life, mental health services for our Service and former Service personnel.

We want to ensure that those suffering from mental health problems are identified effectively, and as soon as possible.

So we will work with experts to examine all the issues of mental health, including the practicalities and benefits of some form of screening or surveillance.

Whatever method we adopt we will ensure it is based on robust, scientific, clinical evidence.

And the Prime Minister has also asked Andrew Murrison, Member of Parliament for Westbury and a former Royal Navy Doctor, to undertake a study into the relationship between the armed forces (both serving and former service personnel) and the NHS, focusing particularly on mental health.

This intention is for his work to be completed by the summer Parliamentary recess

To summarise, today this government reaffirms the moral obligation to treat those who serve, their families, and former Service personnel with fairness and dignity.

We will put in place a strategy, through the covenant, to guide policy across government.

And we will deal with the invisible wounds of war as well as the visible ones.

My challenge for everyone here today, and indeed in wider society, is to find the best ways of making this happen, in full, across the nation.

Government and charities must work together, avoiding duplication or overlap, signing up to the principles of change and simplicity.

We intend to support the commitments laid out two years ago in the ‘Service personnel command paper’, and build on it where it makes sense to do so.

Nick Harvey, the new armed forces minister, and I will work to implement all the coalition agreed measures as a single programme.

Ladies and gentlemen, we welcome sensible initiatives that benefit the armed forces.

Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom or good ideas, and I welcome RUSI’s ‘Whither welfare’ paper as the catalyst for what I hope will be useful discussion today.

Our armed forces deserve the very best that we can provide.

We cannot hope to do this alone.

With your help, we will not fail them.

Published 16 June 2010