Last year at my constituency surgery I met a former soldier, Neil Blower. He told me about his experiences serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrible scenes he had witnessed when his tank was blown up and his struggle with post traumatic stress disorder since his return home to Salford. As a result of the issues Neil raised I called for a Westminster Hall debate to discuss mental health provision for veterans. A lot of veterans struggle when returning to civilian life, and can often find themselves facing other challenges such as debt, homelessness, lack of work and drug and alcohol dependency.
Following the debate, I asked Neil what practical steps we could take to try and make it a little bit easier for armed forces leavers when they return from serving overseas. Neil is a committed Labour party member, and knows that – as I’ve written before – achieving change from opposition is difficult but not impossible. It relies on producing a practical idea that can clearly show that we are committed to generating positive change, building a broad coalition of support and being determined to achieve a result.
As Neil said in his recent Fabian Society article, his first thoughts centred on education, given his own personal experiences at Salford University where the opportunity to immerse himself in study has led to him becoming a published author. While Neil and I both believe that providing free university education to those who have seen active combat should be a future goal of any Labour government, we acknowledge that the current state of public finances make this an impossibility at the present time.
Neil then thought about all the conversations he has had with those leaving the armed forces, and found that one of the most difficult things they face is dealing with their local authority when they return to the UK. They often won’t know about changes to benefits they may be entitled to, how to apply for housing, or what steps they need to take to find work. Dealing with myriad different agencies and members of staff can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening, and the lack of support provided to our service leavers is unacceptable.
Neil came up with the idea of a veterans champion inside local authorities. This would be a position that would combine casework and campaigning, and ensure that there is someone working within local councils who is able to understand the needs of veterans, as well as use their position to push for positive change from within. When Neil explained his idea to me I could see instantly how it would work, and, more importantly, that it would make a difference. Neil and I are now committed to working together to make this happen.
A veterans champion would act as a single point of contact for all veterans. Instead of having to navigate different departments and layers of bureaucracy, a veterans champion would act as a caseworker for all veterans within a local authority area so that veterans would be able to build up a relationship with someone that they can trust to act and advocate for them.
Additionally, the veterans champion would be able to work with local veterans charities to ensure that the need for provision for veterans is kept high on the political agenda, and make sure that all local political parties and leaders are doing their bit for our armed forces and those who have served in them.
Crucially, the veterans champion should be an ex-serviceman or woman themselves. As Neil has told me, there is a bond between those who have served, and only someone who understands what a veteran has been through can empathise with the challenges that they face.
The cost for a network of veterans champions would be minimal – we estimate the cost of creating a new position at approximately £50k per local authority – and it would be up to each local authority to set the powers and responsibilities for their champion at a local level. Some may wish to go further and create a whole veterans department dependent on the number of veterans living in the vicinity, which we would of course welcome.
In reality any money spent on creating a veterans champion would be saved elsewhere. If a network of veterans champions can help support veterans, find them a job and housing, the reality is that fewer will encounter the kind of problems that are all too common for service leavers, and consequently less money would have to be spent tackling these problems. Short-term spending would lead to long-term savings.
Far more important than the cost, though, is the moral argument. These are people who have risked their lives to protect our country. They have often seen close friends die in combat, and when they come back many remain deeply troubled by the terrible things that they have seen. The least we can do is make the transition back into civilian life that little bit easier.
Neil and I will be meeting with Ian Stewart – Labour mayor of Salford – to put our proposal to him later this month, and we hope that he will announce Salford as the first local authority to appoint a veterans champion. Once other councils see that it works, and that a veterans champion can make a real, practical difference to the lives of those who have risked their lives to protect us we are confident that many other communities will follow.
Hazel Blears is MP for Salford. She tweets @HazelBlearsMP
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