Over the past three months, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Veterans has been running an unprecedented nationwide survey on the experiences of our ex-servicemen and women when claiming compensation, war pensions or wider financial support through Veterans UK.
Governed by the Ministry of Defence under the auspices of Defence Business Services, Veterans UK is the organisation entrusted to look after former military personnel. Run by dedicated people at all levels, it performs a vital role for our veteran community and provides that vital link between them, the Government, and the fiscal support on which many are dependent.
There is no question of course that the vast majority of our two million veterans live happily, successfully, and without difficulty. Having benefited from rewarding careers, good medical support and generous resettlement provision, most veterans integrate seamlessly back into civilian life after their service and throw themselves into new challenges.
Anecdotally, however, the APPG has been presented over many months with evidence that not everyone has positive experiences when dealing with Veterans UK, with the claims process deemed to be too confrontational, bureaucratic, antiquated and time-consuming. Greater scrutiny is needed to ensure this most fundamental task is being discharged properly.
The survey itself opened on November 1 2022 and closed on January 31 2023. Entirely cross-party in nature, independent and supported by the major service charities, recipients were able to respond online, and it was commended in the media.
It will now enable the APPG to build up a broad picture of individual experiences and wider trends, so that a final report can be presented to Ministers in February. Ultimately, we hope that sufficient evidence will be provided for the MoD to initiate a further review of Veterans UK’s operations.
In terms of trends, we already know that Veterans UK has suffered under-investment for years; that some staff may still be working from home; that decisions take too long; that calls take time to answer; and that the migration from paper records to digitisation has been too protracted.
We have also heard that some veterans feel like they’re on a knife-edge due to the prolonged waits for what feel like life-and-death outcomes, and that there are cases where individual engagement is sub-optimal.
Whilst we will of course have to balance our findings against the good work that is being conducted by Veterans UK to avoid prejudicing outcomes, it is anticipated that broader modernisation is needed too.
But how is Veterans UK governed? At a superficial level, the levers needed for making procedural changes and efficiencies already exist, for the simple reason that the organisation sits under the MoD. Forming part of Defence Business Services, the authority for these core responsibilities should, and clearly does, come from good command and control.
However, internal management is only part of the solution. To show why, let’s take a fictional example: Corporal (Retired) John Smith.
Having experienced an issue with Veterans UK and exhausted his options for redress, he might write to his MP. His MP writes in due course to the Minister.
But because there is currently no independent body for representing grievances or challenges, the Minister then writes directly to Veterans UK for a response.
Veterans UK is both judge and jury of complaints against it and effectively marks its own homework, with the resultant lack of visibility and accountability that this often entail. Whilst huge progress continues to be made in adequately compensating veterans, it remains the view of the APPG that this process may require wider reform.
The purpose of the Veterans Survey is not, of course, to situate the estimate, as young officers are warned not to do, but to generate the evidence needed for further scrutiny.
What should be the full role of Veterans UK? Does it need further assistance with its digital conversion programme, noting that one blind veteran who recently contacted the APPG was asked by a caseworker to “just fill out a form”? Is there need for a formal structural review, or even a dedicated Delivery Board to ensure greater efficiency? How do we know if Veterans UK is governed appropriately or whether our veterans are given the best deal?
How do we overcome the rectitude that some veterans do sadly report when dealing with individual desks, and in the case of our Christmas Island veterans, how do these claimants receive the correct advice when their medical records are still classified?
This list of questions is by no means exhaustive, but it does give an idea of the scale of the challenge.
Lastly, a ready solution may already exist for providing the necessary oversight, if that is deemed to be necessary.
Whilst service charities such as SSAFA, COBBSEO, RBL and Help for Heroes, along with the new veterans commissioners, all play their full part in supporting our veterans, the more formalised body of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees (or VAPCs) could offer a statutory solution.
Later this year, Robin Millar MP will bring forward the Veterans Advisory and Pension Committees Bill for its Second Reading. This will release members from some of their current legal constraints and enable them to be more adaptive and innovative in working in direct support of veterans.
VAPCs are a significantly untapped resource, and reforming their relationship with the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA) might allow them to be much more effective. They could be given the formal task of holding Veterans UK to account by providing an ombudsman-like or other assurance entity.
Equally, they could be given formal oversight of decisions that become subject to challenge or independent adjudication. There is even some logic that the VAPCs could be formally subsumed by the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA) to provide additional structural rigour.
Either way, there is no question that we must continue to ensure that the UK is the best place in the world to have served in the Armed Forces. I commend the Government for its ground-breaking work to date.
Whilst there is no guarantee that our survey will hit all the buttons, it may yet provide the necessary evidence for a further MoD review, and help deliver the first-class support services our veterans deserve.
First published in ConservativeHome