James Sunderland backs Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

James Sunderland praises the work of the 12 Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees (VAPCs) who support and advocate for veterans and their families, backs the Bill which would put them on a statutory footing and suggests that the VAPCs would be the ideal body to provide independent oversight to Veterans UK.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

I rise to support this excellent Bill, both as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and as a veteran myself. I take my hat off to all of our 2 million-plus veterans in the UK for what they give to our society; it is entirely right that we support them as best we can. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for bringing the Bill forward. It is an excellent Bill and I am happy to support it today.

Back in the day, as a new and younger MP, I chaired the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. Members may recall that Lord Lancaster tabled an amendment that the Committee decided not to support. The reason was simple: the MOD asked the Committee to pause so that it could look holistically at the proposal. In complete deference, I say that it is to the full credit of the MOD that it has looked at it; the fact that we are discussing this very Bill on the back of that recommendation is testament to that.

I do not want to cover the Bill itself in too much detail, but we know that there are 12 veterans advisory and pensions committees across the UK: nine in England, one in Scotland, and one each in Northern Ireland and Wales. Their statutory function is to engage at a local level with war pensioners and armed forces compensation scheme recipients, and to make recommendations and representations to Government.

The policy changes in the Bill will provide for VAPCs to be given additional functions in law—that is important. Why is that important? The language in the Social Security Act 1989, which currently underpins this work, is interesting: “engage”, “support”, “represent”, “recommend”, “assist”—it is pretty flowery stuff. My view of VAPCs currently is that they are great organisations—they have good people, are well led and have considerable horse power—but they have no statutory teeth at all. The Bill is about giving VAPCs the statutory teeth they need to be able to provide defined influence—on which more in a minute. At the moment, a whole raft of people in society do great work for our veterans. We have the armed forces champions, VAPCs, fantastic charities, the third sector—the list goes on. I feel strongly that the VAPCs are the right statutory vehicle for taking that forward, and I will explain why and how in due course.

Back in November 2021, the MOD, working closely with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, provided VAPCs with new non-statutory supplementary terms of reference. That has been looked at over the past 12 months, and the decision has been made to widen those statutory functions and enable matters in the TORs to be set out in secondary legislation. This is about giving the VAPCs teeth. Why are we doing this? It is to better serve the needs of veterans and to better reflect modern-day concerns of the veteran community. Again, that is really important. Is it good that we are doing this? Absolutely, yes.

Clause 1 creates a new enabling power for the Secretary of State to make regulations establishing VAPCs for the specified areas—yes. Clause 2 repeals section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 to make those consequential amendments in law—yes. Clause 3 is about the time period over which that will be enacted. In my view, it needs to be as soon as possible, and I urge the Minister to push the Bill through as quickly as possible.

Here is the issue: why are we doing this? Why is there a requirement for more powers in law? There is a simple reason, which I will explain. Over the past three months, the all-party parliamentary group on veterans has been running an unprecedented nationwide survey into the experience of our veterans when claiming compensation, war pensions or financial support from Veterans UK. There is no question that the majority of our 2 million veterans in the UK live happily and successfully and have fulfilling lives. But anecdotally, the APPG has been presented over many months with evidence that the experiences of individuals when dealing with Veterans UK are not always positive. The claims process right now is deemed to be too confrontational, too bureaucratic and too antiquated, and it takes too long. It may be that greater scrutiny is needed for that most important task.

In terms of trends, we know that Veterans UK has been under-invested in for years. Some staff may still be working from home, decisions take too long, calls take too long to answer, and the migration from paper records to digitisation has been too protracted. We also know that some veterans remain on a knife edge, with the prolonged, impending nature of life and death outcomes. How is Veterans UK governed? At a superficial level, the levers needed for making the changes that we think are necessary already exist in the MOD. The simple reason is that Veterans UK sits under the MOD. It forms part of Defence Business Services, and therefore the authority for its core outputs does, should and must come from good command and control within the MOD.

Again, why is that? Let us take the brief example of Corporal retired John Smith—we all have a Corporal retired John Smith in our constituencies. Having experienced an issue with Veterans UK, and exhausted his own personal options for redress, he might write to his MP. The MP writes in due course to the Minister—he is sat in his place—but the Minister then writes directly to Veterans UK for the answer. Given that there is currently no independent body dealing with grievances or challenges, Veterans UK today is both judge and jury, and effectively marks its own homework. That is not acceptable.

I have yet to meet the Minister—I will do so next week—but let me give a fleeting insight into what the survey told us. It is a cross-party survey—each of the four co-chairs is from a different party—and it received more than 1,000 responses. The headline statistics are that 76% of the veterans and personnel surveyed would rate their overall experience of claiming compensation through Veterans UK as “poor” or “very poor”, compared with just 6% rating it “good” or “very good”. Likewise, 77% of veterans and personnel rate the communication they received while awaiting the results of the application as “poor” or “very poor”, compared with 6.5% rating it “good” or “very good”. One respondent said:

“Veterans UK make it so difficult for all veterans and you feel like a criminal, there’s no compassion whatsoever.”

That is not acceptable, so we have work to do.

So what? The purpose of the survey is not to situate the estimate, but to generate the evidence needed for further scrutiny. We have now done that. I have some questions for the Minister. Does Veterans UK require a formal structural review or a dedicated delivery board? How do we know that Veterans UK is governed appropriately and whether our veterans are given the best deal? Those questions need to be answered.

To come back to the VAPCs Bill, in my view a ready solution may now exist for providing oversight to Veterans UK if that is deemed necessary. Although service charities such as SSAFA, Cobseo, the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, along with the new veterans commissioners, all play their part in supporting our veterans, the more formalised body of the veterans advisory and pension committees could offer that statutory solution. I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for bringing forward the VAPCs Bill, which will release VAPCs from some of their legal constraints so that they can be more adaptive and innovative in working with veterans.

On the back of the Bill, the VAPCs—a significantly untapped resource—might be able to reshape the extant relationship with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to add value. They could be given the formal task of holding Veterans UK to account by providing an ombudsman or assurance-type entity. Equally, they could be given formal oversight for decisions that become subject to challenge or independent adjudication.

Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)

I think it is so important that this Bill goes through, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for his work on it. I have done a lot of work with local organisations in my constituency of Watford. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) agree that everyone who works to support veterans deserve a lot of credit, given that so much of that work is done voluntarily? If there is the opportunity through the Bill to create a statutory body, that is fantastic. We should applaud everyone who is so supportive of veterans now, who has been in the past and who will be in the future.

James Sunderland 

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. So many people in our fantastic communities across the UK are doing great work in support of our veterans, but of course we can do it better. In my view, giving VAPCs a statutory responsibility and role could be just what we need.

I will wrap up very quickly. This timely Bill, which frees VAPCs from statutory control and limitations, offers a potentially fantastic framework for enhancing their role and outputs to the benefit of all our veterans.