Speech

Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation: annual general meeting

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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

Thank you Sir John [Field Marshal Sir John Chapple, President, Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation] for that introduction, and for inviting me to join your AGM.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

The housing and support which the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation provides for vulnerable and disabled veterans, particularly the homeless, is quite simply the Big Society in action.

It’s replicated across the charitable and voluntary sector so that those who choose to serve their country can look to their country with confidence when they most need help.

The sheer breadth and depth of this effort never ceases to amaze me.

An excellent example is Pryors Bank Cafe, here in Fulham, which, as you know, is a not-for-profit business run in partnership with the foundation.

It was founded by a former soldier, which to my mind gave it a fighting chance from the outset.

It trains former service personnel to NVQ standard with the chance of working in West End restaurants.

Most importantly, it pays people a wage, gives them a chance to study at college, and assists them in finding accommodation.

So when your Chief Executive invited me to see for myself the terrific work the foundation does, I was only too happy to oblige.

It’s also a good opportunity for me to set your work in the broader context of government policy towards serving and former service personnel.

These are testing times for the country, and defence is no exception.

As the government seeks to put the public finances back on a sustainable path, we in defence are doing the same for a defence budget which has been in disarray for some time.

We are also seeking to transform our armed forces so that they are fit for the 21st century and the demands which living in this century will place on our servicemen and women.

There is no denying that there are serious issues to address, and the context in which we will operate will be tough.

The government has had to make some difficult, painful, but necessary decisions to get the defence budget broadly back towards balance, and further tough decisions lie ahead of us.

We have had to prioritise ruthlessly in order to ensure that any extra money we can spend, we do so wisely, and on those things that are most urgent.

So it’s at times like these that having some guiding principles stands us in good stead.

For those serving today, we are clear that our priorities are caring for those who are physically and mentally injured in the course of their service.

And for those who have ever put country before self we are determined that the country as a whole should unite in its determination to provide the very best support possible in return.

That’s why we have published the first ever tri-service armed forces covenant in which these key principles will be recognised, among others, for the first time, in the law of land.

And in the ‘Today and tomorrow’ paper, we have set out what we’re doing to give the covenant practical effect, for example in the areas of healthcare, education, and housing.

Of course, government has a major role.

Intervention by the charitable and voluntary sector has a long tradition of making an impact, this foundation alone has been operating since 1917.

But action just from the top, or just from the bottom, is rarely the panacea.

The glass will only be half full unless government, local authorities, devolved administrations, charities, businesses, communities, and individuals come together and maximise the benefit their services can offer the defence Community.

We need a whole of society approach.

For example, with the army recovery capability, we’ve seen the way we support our wounded, injured, and sick personnel taken to a new level.

In large part, that’s thanks to the MOD, Help for Heroes, and the Royal British Legion pooling their resources in a common aim.

Similarly, the MOD has developed a transition protocol with the Department of Health, devolved administrations, and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to ensure a seamless transition for the most seriously ill and injured service personnel.

And the new Big White Wall online support network to support the mental health needs of the armed forces community is another example excellent example of a whole of society approach.

But there is clearly still more to do.

Housing the homeless is the subject most dear to your hearts, so let me say a few words about that.

As the Prime Minister has said, “It is an affront to this country that last winter, one of the coldest on record, there were people still sleeping rough on our streets.”

Sadly, some of those on the streets in that bitter winter cold were former service personnel.

Some may have been affected by their experiences of active service; others by what happened to them before or since.

While other departments have the lead role, we in the MOD have an ongoing duty of care to those who serve our nation.

So we are leaving no stone unturned to see if there are preventative measures we can take in-Service to minimise the impact on our people when they leave. I mentioned the transition protocol just now, but there are other initiatives.

For example, we intend to consult on how the armed forces are managed on social housing lists.

And current and former members of the armed forces will be put at the front of the queue for the new FirstBuy scheme, and other government initiatives to support first time buyers.

But service in our armed forces is not a pre-requisite for homelessness.

So at the ministerial level, we’re taking a broad approach to homelessness through the inter-Ministerial Working Group on homeless issues.

In July, we published a cross-government report called, ‘Vision to end rough sleeping: no second night out nationwide’.

The aim is to tackle the complex causes of homelessness, not only housing, but family breakdown and mental health; drug addiction and alcoholism.

And it’s about partnership at all levels with the ultimate aim of helping the homeless along the path to full independent living.

Of course, government can only do so much; the whole of society must play its part.

It’s here that the excellent work of the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation really comes into its own, and you should be proud of the high-regard in which you are held by the ex-service community.

The latest figures show a reduction in rough sleeping by ex-service personnel in London, and your hard work has undoubtedly played a major part.

We wish you the best with your Veterans Nomination Scheme which dovetails neatly with the covenant and the big society.

I should also pay tribute to other initiatives such as ‘The Beacon’ near Catterick Garrison which offers 31 flats to homeless veterans.

Once again, these projects would not have been possible without effective partnership at all levels.

So despite the tough times we are going through, there are reasons to be cheerful.

As Brigadier Ricketts of Veterans Aid said recently, “I’m still firmly of the opinion that if you are in crisis in Britain today, you are lucky if you are a veteran. There is a huge military family that will reach out to you in your hour of need.”

I agree.

But it’s more than that: there is a grateful society at large to turn to as well.

And at the forefront of that effort - as it has been for almost a century, is the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation.

You are further proof that compassion for those who serve on our behalf remains at the heart of who we are as a nation.