When we think of service personnel returning from the frontline we often think of the ‘heroes’ welcome’ – a waiting family, a grateful nation, courage honoured. But what happens after that doesn’t always capture the headlines.
For some military service-leavers the transition from military to civilian life can be difficult and distressing. The plethora of agencies someone comes into contact with to access services or benefits can be disorientating after a military life of order and clear chain of command. Many do not know what benefits are available to them and how they can be accessed. Work is hard to find for everyone at the moment, but understanding how to transfer military skills or how to re-skill for work in a new sector is an enormous challenge when dealing with the emotional as well as physical transition to civilian life. As a result, homelessness, mental illness, alcoholism or unemployment can impact on a minority of veterans’ lives.
In opposition Labour has made veterans’ resettlement a priority. We have established and rolled out the Veterans Interview Programme, where major national employers offer guaranteed interviews or increased employment support to service-leavers. We have also argued for greater support for veterans’ carers, better in-service training, for veterans to get priority access to the Work Programme and for new legal rights to protect service people against discrimination.
Today we are launching a national campaign for all Local Authorities to appoint a Veterans Champion – a single point of contact for all service-leavers. I will be at Barking and Dagenham, where Council Leader Liam Smith will take on responsibility as Cabinet Member for the Armed Forces. Barking and Dagenham Council are today launching a web page with useful information and details of services on offer for the service community. Across the regions Labour Councils are today announcing Veterans Champions.
I have argued previously that Labour doesn’t need to wait for the next election to become agents of change. We have power in our councils and we have power in our passion for political activism. I hope that, whether as a Labour group campaigning to change the policies of the non-Labour controlled Council or as a Councillor in a Labour-run Authority, this will be something we can all get behind.
This is not about special treatment; it is about a level playing field. Veterans are not victims, but just as they face unique challenges overseas their circumstances on their return can be exceptionally difficult. This campaign is about ensuring those that serve get what they deserve: a chance to be part of the society they fought to defend.
It is of course for individual Local Authorities to decide how this would best work for them, their area and their populations, and this would complement the many excellent initiatives already in place.
A Champion would be someone who would provide an integrated support network. They could make veterans aware of the service charities active in the local area, providing appropriate contact details. They could also offer advice on issues including employment, housing, healthcare, financial management and benefit entitlements.
Another suggestion would be for the Champion to monitor the Council’s work in support of veterans and the wider service community, as well as exploring the potential use of the Community Covenant fund.
Vitally, I have been shocked at how little data the Government holds on what happens to people once they leave the Forces. It could be a huge advance if Champions were to collect information on the service community in the Local Authority area so services can be tailored to specific needs, perhaps establishing contact through ‘drop-in sessions’ or social events.
We can all do more to encourage strengthen the bonds between civilian and military communities. By raising public awareness of veterans’ issues, commemorating sacrifices and holding events to help integrate the Armed Forces community into local life we can build support, but by enabling veterans to contribute to communities with active post-service livelihoods we will build a more reciprocal relationship.
A final suggestion would be for the Veterans Champion to have a personal statement online about why they have taken this role so that those who contact them understand their empathy and support for the Forces and don’t feel they are contacting a faceless voice at the end of the phone line.
Today’s launch builds on Labour’s record of support for our armed forces in government and opposition. Respect and reward for the service community is at the heart of One Nation Labour, giving everyone a stake in society and protecting the very institutions that matter most and bind us together.
Jim Murphy is the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence