It is a real pleasure to follow the impassioned contribution from Mrs Trevelyan, who is a huge advocate for veterans and, indeed, the Royal Marines. Commitment to and passion for those men and women serving in and leaving the world’s finest armed forces can surely be found on both sides of the House. As the Member of Parliament for the home of the Royal Navy, that is heartening for me to see.
I will keep my remarks brief this afternoon. Along with many Members of this House, I spent last week at remembrance services, selling poppies in my constituency. Needless to say, we in Portsmouth were again profoundly moved by and deeply proud of the bravery and sacrifice of service personnel past and present. Pride in our armed forces comes naturally to my city. As the home of the Royal Navy, we know personally of the remarkable courage and expertise in service of those generations that have fought for our country. That is why I am so passionate about ensuring that our Government, our public services and the economy work to support them during their service and beyond, during their transition back to civilian life. So I thank the Minster for his statement today; it was hugely helpful to hear.
This is not a party political issue. Personally, I could not care less from which party or place support for our veterans comes, so long as it is comprehensive and generous. This strategy is at least a good start—it certainly makes lighter reading than today’s withdrawal agreement. I await the results of the consultation with great interest, and I anticipate serious policy commitments. Specific and effective policy is needed because, as has been mentioned by my colleagues, the challenges facing veterans are serious and deserve a response of equal weight.
The Minister may recall from my correspondence with him my support for the armed forces covenant, and I am proud that Portsmouth City Council has recently received the gold award. Equally, however, he may recall my urging him to give some teeth to the covenant and for it to go further.
The same could be said about this strategy and the Government’s support for veterans generally. I wholeheartedly endorse each and every one of the key themes set out by the Minister’s Department. Co-ordination of services, data collection and proper recognition for our veterans—these are all things I have been campaigning for and absolutely support. However, to be realised, they require timely action from Government. That is especially true of the shocking lack of worth our veterans feel is placed in them by the wider population. According to a heart-breaking report by SSAFA, 62% feel undervalued by society. I was pleased to see that recognition of veterans was a key strand in the veterans strategy. I also greatly welcome plans to introduce an official veterans ID card, and perhaps the Minister could update the House later on progress on that.
It is clear that action to improve life for veterans does not have to be hugely costly or complex to be effective. I will confine my remarks to an issue that is not only particularly pertinent, but something whose treatment it would be simple to improve. That issue is mental health, and specifically data collection on suicide rates.
I should say from the start that we should in no way stigmatise our armed forces personnel. The majority of ex-servicemen and women adapt very well to civilian life. The skills required in the forces are unique and an extremely valuable addition to the existing talents that those in our services often hold. As the Minister and other Members of this place can attest, life in the forces can preface great success in civilian and even public life. That does not mean we can afford to lose sight of those in our armed forces who do need support and care.
The UK is almost unique in not requiring coroners to mark an individual as a veteran. As a result, only one of the 98 coroners in England and Wales does so. That is something almost all our allies do, including Canada, America and Australia, because it makes sense. This is important and useful data about and for the veteran community.
How can we possibly go about solving this issue if we do not know the scale of the problem? The Ministry of Defence currently puts the tri-services suicide rate at eight per 100,000, which is notably lower than the 15.5 per 100,000 rate that the Office for National Statistics reports among the general male population. I have no doubt that everyone in this House would welcome that state of affairs but, put simply, significant research from the Royal British Legion and my own conversations with the veteran community suggest that it does not reflect reality. The fact is that we do not know for sure, which is exactly my point.
In answer to my written question of 8 October on the plans that the MOD and the Ministry of Justice have for introducing such a recording duty on coroners, the Minister said he had had no such conversations with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps he could say today whether he might consider introducing a coroner recording duty as part of the veterans strategy. The move would fit well with the Government’s aim, as stated in yesterday’s document, of enhancing the collection, use and analysis of data across sectors to effectively address the needs of veterans. I believe the measure would have broad support from the public and the military, including from General Sir Dave Richards. I urge the Government to listen and to capitalise on this remarkably simple but invaluable step.
I also pay tribute to the campaigning of the Portsmouth News and the Sunday People, and specifically to the dedication of Portsmouth veteran Stephen James, who has developed a fantastic peer-to-peer chat app, All Call Signs, to connect former services personnel, allowing them to support each other directly when mental health difficulties arise.
We owe services personnel far better than to turn a blind eye. Inevitably, the data itself would not help us to reduce the number of tragic incidents, but it would be invaluable in bettering our understanding of the issue, which is crucial if we are to tackle it. Again, I encourage the Minister to incorporate this commitment to veterans.