Written evidence submitted by the Veterans Commissioner for Northern Ireland to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
Background to Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner
- I was appointed as Northern Ireland’s first Veterans Commissioner on 1 September 2020 (initially for 3 years) by the Secretary of State for NI as one of the commitments from the New Decade New Approach political agreement from January 2020. I am independent and in simple terms, I am to be the voice for veterans in Northern Ireland.
- Since my appointment, I have engaged extensively with veterans and veteran representatives throughout Northern Ireland, listening and hearing first-hand what they experienced during their time in military service and also how they have found the transition back to civilian life.
- It is estimated that there is somewhere in the region of 150,000 veterans living in Northern Ireland, and if you include their families then that number rises to as many as 300,000 people. I also intend to work across the border into Ireland, where there is a number (estimated up to 10,000) of veterans living, who also served in the British Armed Forces.
- I work closely with the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Support Office (VSO), the statutory body that provides oversight of the delivery of veterans’ services across Northern Ireland. This is embedded within RFCA NI, whose Chief Executive, Col Johnny Rollins, briefed the Select Committee earlier this month.
- RFCA NI has been given this role because, as an MOD Arms-Length Body, it has a legally underpinned set of networks across civil society that greatly facilitate the level of engagement needed. These networks include the Veterans Champions within each local authority, as well as effective networks with both employers and the education sector that equally help circumvent local political obstacles.
- The VSO itself represents Cobseo in Northern Ireland and facilitates the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Committee (NIVSC), a collaborative grouping of local service deliverers who share best practice and establish consensus positions that RFCA NI reflects in its draft for the annual AFC report.
Armed Forces Bill
- It is critical that we firmly establish in Northern Ireland all that is promised in the Armed Forces Covenant. It is therefore welcomed that some of the Covenant provisions I have encountered since becoming Veterans Commissioner, namely around education, health and housing, will form part of the Armed Forces Bill.
- ‘Due Regard’; the first point I would make is around the terminology of public authorities having ‘due regard’ and the provision around ‘special consideration’. On ‘due regard’ the terminology is vague and can mean different things to different people – I wonder could this be strengthened to place a greater requirement on public authorities to proactively ensure that the needs of veterans and their families are met?
- ‘Special Consideration’; the inclusion of ‘special consideration’ is welcomed. However, I would pose the question, how is ‘special consideration’ measured and what will be the criteria that public authorities will have to adhere to?
- There are other critical issues that I know have been raised, including by other veteran charities and organisations, who have asked if this is not an opportune time to include additional provisions, for example, on pensions, employment (especially skills and retraining), welfare (especially ensuring aggregation of benefits is correctly understood and delivered) and immigration. These are matters that I have also encountered during my first six months as Commissioner and I would encourage the Select Committee to consider the potential of including additional provisions in the scope of the legislation.
- If we are going to realise the UK Government’s strategic aim ‘to make the UK the best place for a veteran to live by 2028’, we need to tackle the plethora of pension difficulties, all of which are regularly raised with my Office. Although complex, it is a key issue for veterans and their families and one that needs to be dealt with by the UK Government. Every veteran should understand what pensions are available to him/her and the necessary assistance provided for them, as navigating through the pension system can be a complicated process.
I have listed some of the pension issues that have been raised with me:
● War Widows Pension - one key issue is widows of veterans not being recognised for their pension if it is a second marriage or a marriage after their service has ended;
● Pre-1975 Pensions - there is a petition existing for those who pre-1975 did less than 26 years’ service and did not receive a pension;
● UDR Pensions - those who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and arguably bore the brunt of the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland, having served and lived in the theatre of conflict, many of whom did not receive a pension;
● 1975; 2005; 2015 Pensions - there are different issues arising from each of the legislations affecting pensions.
- The political landscape of Northern Ireland means that issues such as the implementation of the Covenant are not as straightforward as in other regions of the United Kingdom. As a former politician, I am acutely aware of the difficulties there have been in the past and continue to be around veterans’ issues. With education, health and housing all falling within the devolved space it is therefore imperative that if the Stormont Executive fails to deliver on everything that will flow from this legislation, or if the Executive was to cease functioning again, then I strongly recommend that provision is made within the legislation that ensures delivery via the Ministry of Defence and/or the Northern Ireland Office for veterans and their families living in Northern Ireland.
- The political landscape also means that on occasions legislation is only agreed on a quid pro quo basis and it is therefore essential that all legislation is comprehensive and as strong as it can be so that any watering down of its delivery will still achieve its original aim.
- It is worth pointing out that there are a number of initiatives that have been made available to veterans living in other regions of the United Kingdom, that are not part of the Covenant, and therefore can only be delivered via the devolved administration - the Rail Travel Card; guaranteed interviews in the Civil Service; and National Insurance breaks for new businesses. Veterans living in Northern Ireland feel they are disadvantaged compared to their fellow veterans living in other parts of the United Kingdom and naturally expect similar initiatives to be afforded to them. Again, the political landscape in Northern Ireland makes the delivery of such initiatives more difficult.
- Finally, I would like to raise the potential for including legal advocacy support for veterans within the legislation. Many veterans have told me that they are fed up being demonised by certain sections of our society and press, specifically in relation to Operation Banner. I feel there needs to be greater legal protection afforded to veterans that will ensure untruths and false accusations can be challenged legally. Veterans who served in Northern Ireland, or indeed in other conflicts, deserve to be treated with the respect they deserve, as they bore the brunt of terrorism and all its horrors and did so on behalf of us all.
- I trust this evidence is beneficial to the work of the Select Committee and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss any of these matters with the Committee in person, if that would be helpful.
22 March 2021
Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill