The first duty of any government in the UK is to protect our nation and its citizens. Whether that’s keeping us safe in our homes and communities or shielding our infrastructure and cyberspace from malicious actors, our security is the foundation from which our society springs. At the heart of maintaining this security are the servicemen and women that make up our armed forces. Each individual in this community, from those currently serving to forces families and veterans, plays a crucial role in how we are able to live our lives.
To thank them for this immense contribution, each year on the last Saturday of June, we mark Armed Forces Day – hosting celebrations, raising flags and taking the time to appreciate their work, which takes place 24 hours a day, all year round. From their work at home, stepping in to deliver crucial emergency services and vaccinations during the pandemic, to their contribution abroad in response to the Ukraine crisis, Labour stands firmly behind each and every member of our forces community, and thanks them for their commitment and duty – today and always.
Despite their importance, however, over the last decade, the Tories have been weakening the foundations of our armed forces, overseeing a ‘decade of decline’ for our defence. Not only has Boris Johnson characteristically broken his election promise not to cut the armed services “in any form“, reducing the army to its smallest size in 300 years – while at the same time, the Ministry of Defence has presided over shocking levels of wasted public funds, amounting to £15bn since 2010.
Whilst the Tories fail our armed forces, stripping its resources and wasting what’s left, Labour is calling on ministers to immediately halt these cuts and would commission the National Audit Office to conduct a comprehensive audit of waste in the department. It is not, however, just the institution of the armed forces that the government has been failing. It has also repeatedly let down the service men and women who embody it.
Having committed their lives to performing the ultimate public service, military personnel and veterans should be placed right at the heart of our defence plans. But instead, in many cases, they are being left to fend for themselves. Nowhere is this more stark than in the case of veterans mental health. Though the vast majority of ex-forces personnel speak highly of their experience in our armed forces, many still deal with complex mental health issues related to their service, such as post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression.
For some of these people, events in Afghanistan and Ukraine this year have only made matters worse, with news coverage triggering difficult feelings, or re-traumatising those who have been on the frontline. Indeed, in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul, calls to the combat stress helpline doubled. Yet, in part due to cuts for NHS funding support, the charity’s funding fell by £6m in the year prior, causing their services to become severely stretched.
Gaining help through the government’s official channels can also prove difficult. Waiting times for the veterans ‘complex treatment service’ remain “significantly and stubbornly higher”, according to the Confederation of Service Charities – and just 26% of forces charities think that the government does enough to support the mental health of veterans.
But despite this high demand and the oversubscription of services, mental health funding for veterans remains shockingly low at just £20m a year across the board. Labour committed last year to boosting veteran mental health support by £35m but the government is yet to match this, demonstrating its lack of willingness to centre the people without whom the armed forces simply would not operate.
These same themes of inadequate support are echoed throughout the government’s treatment of our ex-service personnel. Indeed as the cost of living skyrockets, new figures have revealed that at least 33,800 veterans are in receipt of Universal Credit. But, instead of giving veterans a leg up in finding employment to support themselves, the Tories have been busy breaking their existing commitments to help. In 2019, they announced up to £6m to fund more than 100 armed forces champions in jobcentres. The 2022 Veterans Strategy Action Plan, however, confirmed that ministers were pushing ahead with plans for just 50.
Whether it’s physical health, where the government has closed the Veterans Mobility Fund leaving many without the specialist mobility equipment to live their lives, or housing and homelessness, where the government claim to be eradicating rough sleeping by the end of this parliament but doesn’t even have any data on how many veterans are sleeping rough – the Tories are falling short again and again.
As we gear up to face the greatest challenge to democracy and our way of life since the Cold War alongside our NATO allies, it is vital that this Armed Forces Day marks a turning point in our country’s commitment to the strength of our Armed Forces, and to all those who serve, or have served, within it. Whilst the Tories stall, Labour are prepared and ready to step up and protect those who protect our nation.