A recent, and friendly, email exchange with Scottish Veterans’ Commissioner Charlie Wallace in which I queried some aspects of his last blog of 2019  prompted me to revisit the topic of care for service veterans in Scotland.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford. Crawford was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford was also an SNP defence spokesman. He now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
My question was how many of his predecessor, Eric Fraser’s, 63 recommendations had been implemented, and he directed me to another document which records the action the Scottish Government’s progress on these recommendations. Here you will read that, as at June 2019, 29 of the recommendations had been implemented and 27 partially implemented. Progress is clearly being made.
However, it did strike me that much of successive Commissioners’ work has involved research, investigation and report writing, and that the context in which they have been operating is – like all government bureaucratic functions – not exactly conducive to speedy action. Here the problem, if indeed there is one, would seem to lie with the Scottish Government to which the Commissioners report. Be that as it may, it might be worth considering what measures could be put in place to make the process of transition from military to civilian life better for our servicemen and women.
Before doing so, however, there are other issues to consider. I have written (and agitated in a mild and non-confrontational manner) before that there are two fundamentals to the whole process which are not yet in place. These are based on a long held belief that governments in both Westminster and Holyrood have, to a large extent, historically abrogated their responsibility to our military personnel once their service – and presumably usefulness – has come to an end. It is truly shameful that after service care for veterans has traditionally been palmed off to the charitable sector in a manner which Pontius Pilate himself would admire.
The second concerns the well meant but essentially ineffective and unenforceable Military Covenant . Introduced into political discourse as recently as 2000, it purports define the mutual obligations between the UK population nation and its Armed Forces. It is, however, not legally binding although it is certainly taken seriously by the armed services and probably most politicians as well, but it does have wriggle room for the uncaring and unscrupulous. There is as yet no plan to enshrine the Covenant in law at Westminster.
Against this background I think that two major predeterminants of properly and successfully engaging with, and caring for, our veterans need to be put in place. The first is that a Department for Veterans’ Affairs needs to be established within the Scottish Government, headed by a Cabinet Minister and with its own budget, buildings and civil service staff answerable to him and the veterans’ community. Such a department, properly funded, would give a more powerful voice within government in squalid and avoid much of the duplication and overlapping of effort that exists in the over 70 military charities that the Scottish Government supports with funding.
We already have a Minister for Veterans in Scotland in the form of Graeme Dey MSP, but the post was only created in June 2018 and is double hatted with the post of Minister for Parliamentary Business, so his attention is inevitably split. As an aside, in Westminster there is an Office for Veterans’ Affairs, and indeed a Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, a post established as recently as last year, where the incumbent is currently Johnny Mercer MP. His role is, apparently, to oversee all veterans’ issues across Government, including housing, mental health support and employment, but may well just be a sop to those who have agitated for such a thing over many years.
The second is, of course, that the Military Covenant needs to be enshrined in law and its contents enforceable through the courts. It is true, arguably, that its key principles are legislated for in the Armed Forces Act 2011 , but this appears only to require the Secretary of State for Defence “to prepare and armed forces covenant report” and lay a copy of the report before Parliament. The Covenant itself is not a legal document and many think it should be.
Here is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to lead the way. We are always being told ad nauseam how certain measures have been introduced in Scotland first – think smoking ban, “free” care for the elderly, “free” prescriptions, “free” eye examinations, minimum pricing for alcohol etc etc – so why not be first with establishing a proper Department for Veterans’ Affairs and establish the provisions of the Military Covenant in law north of the Border via the Scottish Parliament? Is there anything, aside from political will, that stops the Scottish Government from so doing?
And what, I hear you ask, might the priorities be for this new Department for Veterans’ Affairs within the Scottish Government? This is relatively easy to answer. There are four basics which should be addressed – employment, housing, health and education, not necessarily in that order. They should be concurrent activity, a phrase much loved in British military circles.
Let’s take employment first. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, hurdles that services leavers have to face is finding suitable employment. The good news is that most people get there in the end. The bad news is that, for every person who leaves the services on the Friday and starts civilian employment the following Monday (it does happen), there is another who takes much, much longer, sometimes months or even years. There is lots of help available, maybe even too much help, from a plethora of different organisations with overlapping or duplicating offers, which can be bewildering and unsettling. Who to go to? Which organisation best suits my needs?
How much simpler and efficient might it be if the Department for Veterans’ Affairs was the single point of contact for all service leavers hoping to settle in Scotland? I know work has already been undertaken to establish a network of “services friendly” employers, but how much better if an established department of the Scottish Government could drive this. A personal opinion is that the ultimate solution to post-service employment lies in enhanced terms and conditions of service, whereby anyone serving for, say, nine years or more is guaranteed employment when they leave. But this is an argument for another time and place. Just one caveat for those still in uniform but contemplating leaving the armed forces; most civilian jobs are mind-numbingly boring and mundane compared to the variety, comradeship, and occasional high excitement of service life. Be careful what you wish for!
Next, housing. Unless you already own your own home, or have savings enough to put down a deposit to purchase (can you still commute part of your pension to a lump sum?), then getting a home can be problematic. The difficulties of getting local authority or housing association housing have been well covered in the press so no need for further comment here. Making the transition from the married patch or from barrack accommodation to civilian housing is another big hurdle.
Again, I know that work has been underway for some time to give veterans some priority in allocation of housing, but there are so many other priority categories that the authorities have to juggle with too – single parents, asylum seekers, political refugees etc etc. 
Nor am I necessarily suggesting that we should go the whole hog and establish exclusive veterans’ housing communities as other countries have done. Such arrangements can create isolated and inward-looking ex-military ghettoes.
However, the idea of a halfway house or “transit accommodation” for individuals and families making the transition has a certain appeal. For example, the recently opened veterans village at Wilton Hill in Wiltshire  could provide a model for similar facilities north of the Border.
Although this pioneering example seems heavily weighted towards those who are homeless and in difficulty, it is, I think, a concept equally applicable to those seeking to catch their breath and explore the opportunities from within a familiar environment. Recent proposed developments at Erskine in Bishopton, for example, seem to indicate a way forward. 
But again, this should be government work, not left to charity.
Health too is a major factor in transition. It’s clear that ex servicemen and women return to the civilian world with the same range of health issues which also afflict the general population. Of course, the exceptions tend to be traumatic injury caused by gunshot and explosive devices plus the associated psychological problems pertaining to military service like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Attempts have been made and are ongoing to provide priority healthcare within the NHS for veterans. 
Note, however, that whilst “veterans are entitled to priority access to NHS care … for conditions associated with their time within the armed forces … this is always subject to clinical need”. It is not an entitlement to jump the queue.
Veterans are quite sensibly advised to register with their GP on exiting the forces and to ensure their medical documents are transferred to your NHS medical records. To be honest, I’ve been out now for over 20 years and I haven’t a clue whether my GP has my service medical documents or not, or indeed whether he/she/it (they change so often) knows that I’m ex military in the first place. I’m pretty sure there will be no reference to the whooping couch, anthrax, and bubonic plague inoculations I got in 1991, but I’ll make a mental note to ask next time.
What we don’t have in Scotland is veterans’ hospitals in the way that the USA and others do. There, the Veterans Health Administration is part of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs under the Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health that implements the healthcare program of the Department through the administration and operation of numerous VA Medical Centres (VAMC), Outpatient Clinics (OPC), Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC), and VA Community Living Centres (VA Nursing Home) Programmes.
Now I’m well aware that Scotland does not have the huge population and vast resources of the USA. However we do have, according to the Scottish Government’s own figures, over 500,000 in our veterans’ community – those who have served plus families and relatives. Perhaps we should be considering not veterans’ hospitals but wings of existing NHS hospitals which could be prioritised (not exclusively) for veterans and the specialised treatment for both physical and psychological problems and afflictions they may have? And, at the same time, they might provide a valuable training ground and experience for the reserve forces NHS doctors and nurses who already work in the NHS.
Finally, education (and training). Generally speaking, veterans enter the civilian employment arena with a set of skills rarely found elsewhere – technical, organisational, and leadership skills to name but three. They immediately face the problem that many of their skills are not recognized or acknowledged by potential employers who have on the whole zero knowledge of la vie militaire. How could they? National Service ended in the early 1960s and much of the territorial bonds for the army have been dismantled by successive defence reviews. Knowledge of military matters amongst the general population is very limited indeed.
Work has been underway for some time to rectify this disconnect. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SQCF), for example, has been attempting to translate military qualifications into civvy-speak with some success. But much more needs to be done. As I have said before, you could have planned and carried out the Normandy landings single-handed but if you don’t have five years experience in a call centre you’re never going to get the manager of that centre’s job when it comes up. I don’t know the answer to this one I’m afraid, as there seems to be a plethora of organisations doing their best to help. All I would ask is this; who’s in charge?
Of course the question of finance always has to be addressed. How much would establishing a Department for Veterans’ Affairs within the Scottish Government cost? Unsurprisingly no formal budget assessment exists because the idea has yet to find traction in official circles. However, if we assume a reasonably modest structure of, say, a junior minister plus staff of about 20 FTE, then costs would be more than manageable. For example, the recently established Scottish Fiscal Commission, which is not a department but an independent organisation of course, has a similar staff number and a small operating budget for an annual cost of roughly £2.5 million per annum. In government spending terms this is next to nothing.
My hypothesis is, to reiterate, that these four subjects – employment, housing, health and employment & training – which are fundamental to the successful transition of ex-military personnel back into the civilian population should not be left, by and large, to the charitable sector to deliver. The current practice of doing so is both an abrogation of responsibility by governments and inefficient; charities do fine work and are staffed in the main by well meaning and dedicated staff, but overlap and duplication of effort is widespread. And why use taxpayers’ money to pay for multiple chief executives, treasurers and premises when one of each might do? A properly staffed Department within government would provide a much needed focus for looking after our veterans and would be able to implement properly the provisions of the Military Covenant, which now really should be enshrined in law.
We can do all of this in Scotland and lead the way if the political will exists. The question is does it, or will vested interest and the dead hand of bureaucracy once again prove an insurmountable barrier to progress?