A new year – a renewed drive for change

2020 kicked off on a positive note with fresh clarity and renewed drive for change in Government plans to deliver on the joint ‘Strategy for Our Veterans’. On 21 January the Scottish Government published its plan to implement the Strategy in Scotland. Graeme Dey, the SG Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, made a statement to the Scottish Parliament, while the UK Government also published its own response to the consultation.  The sort of cross-government ownership we’ve seen with the Strategy can be pretty rare these days and it’s refreshing to see the needs of our veterans put before political differences.  In my response to the Scottish Government’s plan, I refer to the importance of meaningful collaboration in the push required to finally get transition from service to civilian life right.  

The publication of these plans is well timed as I progress my own thinking and begin to shape my recommendations aimed at improving transition as set out in my ‘Positive Futures’ paper of last November.  Transition is a process and not a one-off event and ‘Positive Futures’ sets the scene and looks at the contemporary challenges and opportunities around transition and why it matters so much.  I hoped it would encourage conversation amongst all those who work to make things better for our veterans and the early weeks of the year are certainly seeing plenty of opportunity on that front.

In the first of a series of conversations I met with SSAFA Controller, Lieutenant-General Sir Andrew Gregory. We discussed the charity’s approach to supporting Service leavers, particularly its mentoring service which provides long-term, one-to-one, face-to-face support during transition and for up to two years post discharge.  I also met with Colonel Sandy Fitzpatrick, Deputy Commander of 51 Brigade to discuss his thoughts on some specific aspects on the transition journey from the Army perspective and potential approaches to improvement they’ve been testing. 

A regular feature in my diary is the Scottish Parliament’s Armed Forces and Veterans Cross Party Group.  Important because it brings together MSPs from across Parties with others from the Armed Forces Community and those with an interest in our Armed Forces and in the wellbeing of our Veterans and their families.  It’s a broad and diverse group, offering people a voice.  The January meeting heard from members and leaders of the Cadets Association. Aged between 10-20 years old, there are about 10,000 community Cadets in Scotland, who not only benefit from the comradery and a sense of belonging but gain important life skills, build confidence and can pursue learning and the chance to gain accredited qualifications.  We were privileged to hear first-hand from three cadets who explained their personal journey and what being part of the Cadets has meant to them.  One young lady’s inspiring story even had some of us reaching for the tissues!

Also presenting to the Cross-Party Group was the recently formed Defence Transitions Services (DTS).  Described as a ‘safety net’ of support for two years pre and post discharge for those who need it most, it is part of the Defence Holistic Transition Policy and is one solution we’ve seen emerging from MOD to help address the difficulties people experience when leaving the uniform behind.  Last week, some of my team attended a joint Erskine and DTS event hosted by Erskine at its Reid Macewen Activity Centre in Bishopton. The Scotland and Northern Ireland DTS team gave an update on its work, so far dealing with the first 20 referrals in its area.  Case workers across the UK are dealing with a wide variety of enquiries, though the majority are about employment, training and education, or accommodation and relocation. 

Erskine updated those present on the progress of its Transitional Supported Accommodation build, which when complete, will provide 24 fully furnished apartments for individual working age veterans (rather than families) who can really struggle with finding an affordable ‘stop-gap’ and safe space to live as they contend with other aspects of life back in Civvy Street.  The Erskine ‘offer’ includes access to a package of support with training and gaining employment, securing a more permanent home and other aspects of transition that can be so difficult to cope with as they hit service leavers all at one time. 

A January meeting with staff from Active Stirling and the Macroberts Art Centre struck a chord with me about the importance of community-based activities for veterans and their families, and the part they can play in helping to address loneliness and isolation but also in improving health and wellbeing.  The energy and enthusiasm they bring to provision in the Stirling area is infectious, indeed it can be hard to escape as I found out first hand when I was embroiled in my first game of curling and faced some stiff completion from veterans who had tried their hand and become rather good at sliding the stone.  

On a broader stage I was pleased to learn of the opportunity to further discussions presented by ‘Veterans Work – The Debate’ in London this week.  Hosted by Deloitte, in collaboration with the Forces in Mind Trust and the Officers’ Association, the debate brought together voices from a range of invested stakeholders, from businesses, policy makers, military charities and the media, as well as veterans themselves.  For me, this was further evidence of the growing number of employers who are waking up to the potential of employing ex-service personnel, the most enlightened of which are proactively reaching out as it becomes more difficult to recruit the skilled staff they need. 

Next month I will look in more detail at the Scottish Government’s plan ‘Taking the Strategy Forward in Scotland’.