Speaking in a Backbench Business debate on the process for claiming War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation payments James Sunderland backs calls for a review to establish what the problems are. He recognises concerns about the dual role of Veterans UK in both assessing and making the awards, and suggests extending the role of veterans advisory and pensions committees (VAPCs) as a possible solution.
I commend the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this debate. When he asked me to speak, it was hard to refuse. There are reasons for that. First, I am a veteran myself, along with my good and right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and also have the privilege of chairing the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee. I have a vested interest in this important issue.
The first thing I want to say is that there are 2.2 million veterans or thereabouts in the UK. The fact is that they are not all mad, bad or sad: the vast majority live life perfectly successfully and happily, and are doing very well indeed. I do not know many officers or soldiers who are sleeping under Waterloo bridge, but we cannot deny the problem because we know that there is one.
My point is that although the vast majority of veterans are being looked after and doing really well, a percentage of them have an issue. Whether that is 5% or 8% depends on what we read, but some among us are identified as being in bad health and there is no question at all but that we have a moral responsibility to help those who have served in our armed forces. That is a no-brainer, and it must happen. But maybe there is a disconnect in respect of what they expect of us in society and what they are not getting.
The armed forces compensation scheme is a good scheme that has much to be commended. It is a great scheme, and I commend those volunteers who work within it—the assessors, medical staff, and all those who make it happen and do the best they can to improve the lot of our veterans. Yes, there are some examples of where the scheme has not provided sufficient care for those in need. We heard a bit about that earlier, and inboxes for all MPs are a barometer of what might be lurking out there. I feel fortunate in Bracknell, but I know other colleagues are not so fortunate with what they get in their inboxes. That encourages us to action, as we have to make the appropriate interventions.
There are situations where veterans can be penalised if they are getting better, and a lot of the assessments come down to the day on which someone is assessed. Are they having a good day or a bad day? Are they showing an improvement this week? There is an inconsistency with the assessments, and we know that some veterans have been wrongfully assessed. Mental health problems can go under the radar. Some veterans do not want to present with mental health problems, and they keep things to themselves. I commend Op COURAGE, the fantastic new initiative being led by the MOD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. It is brilliant. We had a read-out last week at the all-party group on veterans, and the stuff that is happening is really good. We are moving in the right direction.
There is no question in my mind that in the main, MOD pensions, war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments are generous and fair. It is a good scheme that befits those who have undertaken armed service. Anecdotally, as we have heard, there may be an issue, and that is what I want briefly to scratch now. I find myself in the strange predicament of suggesting that we may have a problem and that there may be a solution, but that we do not know what that solution might be because we have not defined the problem. That is our first task: what is that problem, and how deep does it go? It is easy to admire the problem, but as politicians we should be focused on the solution.
Veterans UK fulfils a vital function for the MOD, but it assesses and it awards, and it may be that marking one’s own homework brings its own problems. Is the problem systematic? It may be—we do not know. About 2,500 veterans are believed to be in this trap—let us call it the assessment and award trap. Are they presenting better? Are they presenting worse? Once again, it depends what day we look. Can we separate out those functions? When the next armed forces Bill is discussed in 2026, perhaps it could include a clause on that. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Midlothian said earlier, we need to appoint an independent assessor versus Veterans UK. Perhaps there is an enhanced role for our service charities, such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the British Legion, and Combat Stress. Perhaps we could do a lot more with our armed forces champions. Perhaps local councils could intervene.
Perhaps, however, we need another solution altogether, such as veterans advisory and pensions committees. Hon. Members might recall that during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill in 2021, Lord Lancaster tabled an amendment in the other place to get the Bill to incorporate the functions of veterans advisory and pensions committees, to include all functions covered by the covenant, and to get a change to the current statutory instrument. He withdrew that amendment because the Government offered a concession to draft a Government-sponsored hand-out Bill—perhaps a private Member’s Bill—in the next Session of Parliament. We may face that in due course, which I would welcome.
What does that actually mean? In brief, VAPCs are regional statutory committees—nine in England, two in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland—that have been established by a statutory instrument under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989. It seems perfect—social security Act, statutory body, one can see the connection straightaway. The VAPC handbook, published by the MOD, states that each VAPC is an advisory non-departmental body that acts independently of its sponsor department, the MOD—you can see where we are going with this. Currently, VAPCs cannot be given functions relating to all veterans, because that is outside the extent of the enabling power which limits the functions of VAPCs to war pensions, armed forces compensation scheme benefits, those claiming and receiving them, and their families. Well, guess what? That is what we are talking about, so it may be that the VAPCs are perfectly placed to do that bit of work within their existing statute, or it might be that an amendment, such as the one proposed in 2021, would give VAPCs a power to be given functions relating to all veterans. It is a neat trick and an easy one to amend, so again I commend it to the House.
Importantly, VAPCs could be given a statutory role, subject to resources and perhaps supported by the charities and the NHS, to provide a voice of reason for Veterans UK, perhaps as some kind of independent assessor, critical friend or voice of conscience. I regret that at this point in time I do not have a ready solution in terms of the mechanism by which that might take place, but it stands to reason from what we said earlier this evening that it is worthy of consideration. I believe that VAPCs could be really important in this particular area to provide that link and that voice of conscience with Veterans UK.
Ultimately, before I finish, anything that resolves the loose ends and allows us to get granularity on what veterans are currently facing, and anything that allows us to dig deeper and understand that there is an institutional systemic problem, is to be welcomed. Anything that we do in this country in support of veterans is to be applauded.