When I started as Scottish Veterans Commissioner in September 2018, a fundamental question I wanted an answer to was the status of the 63 recommendations my predecessor, Eric Fraser made across his 4 key reports. That the Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations from these reports reflects their commitment to supporting veterans and their families. With the first report on Transition published in 2015 and the most recent, the Health and Wellbeing Report in 2018, the time was right to take stock of progress made in implementing those recommendations and examining what still needs to be done.
At one of my first meetings with Graeme Dey MSP, the Scottish Veterans’ Minister, I requested a status report against all the recommendations. I knew action was being taken by the Scottish government and its partners on a number of fronts and my gut feeling was that Eric Fraser’s reports really got to the heart of the main areas of concern for the veterans community in Scotland and were acting as a catalyst for positive change.
Eric Fraser’s work did much to bring the veterans community to the forefront of key decision-makers’ minds and to encourage action. I know he was certainly appreciative of the positive manner in which the Scottish Government and its partners responded to the challenges and ideas he put forward. But in determining what still needs to be done, I wanted to establish the hard facts on what had already been achieved, and on where the greatest challenges now lay.
Challenge meetings with Ministers
Bringing supportive challenge is an important aspect of the special authority and space I’ve been given as the Scottish Veterans Commissioner. Issues that affect veterans and their families’ lives range widely across areas such as health, housing, education and employability. These issues often straddle different Ministerial portfolios and call for co-ordinated effort and joined-up working across government and with partner organisations.
Scottish Ministers clearly recognise the cross-cutting nature of the challenge to securing better outcomes for the veterans’ community and in considering the status of Eric’s recommendations and future priorities, I have had meetings with a number of Ministers with relevant portfolio responsibilities. From 1 March to the end of May 2019 I met 3 Cabinet Secretaries and 3 Ministers to discuss successes and issues and I have benefitted from their insight and ideas on progress and how we can best elicit change.
My approach to analysing and reporting progress
Since receiving the Scottish Government’s status report in January 2019, my office has analysed it further and applied standard RAG (Red, Amber, Green) status reporting based on the facts supplied, which, in a number of instances we have further tested with policy officials and Ministers. The RAG status is my assessment of how well we are doing set against the original recommendations. Progress reporting in this way offers clarity and transparency on ‘how we are doing’ and a baseline for prioritising and driving effort. The first report tells a positive story and demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to drive up standards of service provision and make Scotland the destination of choice for Service Leavers and their families.
My first ‘at a glance’ Progress Report, which can be viewed here, shows there has been tangible progress made across all areas: housing, education, skills and employment and health.
What the 2019 report is telling us
Key achievements that stand out for me are:
Information sharing and sign-posting to services – the effectiveness of information provision for service personnel, veterans and their families was referred to in a number of SVC recommendations across the 4 reports. There is still work to be done on this front but there is also strong evidence of improvement. Greatest progress has been made in addressing shortcomings in the provision of housing information where there were real problems with access to accurate, relevant and understandable information and guidance.
Champions networks – there are a large number of different types of Armed Forces and Veterans Champions across Scotland operating at varying degrees of maturity. Good progress has been made in trying to support and develop the ‘Champion’ role and to develop networks of champions. In particular, recent work on embedding the role and supporting the NHS Champions’ network and a Higher and Further Education network looks promising. This activity is important because we need to co-ordinate and consolidate effort and I will be taking a close interest in this over the next 12 months.
Employability, Skills & Learning – there have been a number of significant developments in these areas including: setting up the Veterans Employability Strategic Working Group of key partners to provide strategic leadership; creating a dedicated employability strand of funding from the Scottish Veterans Fund; and some good work in promoting the Modern Apprenticeship programme to veterans, their spouses and partners and to begin to translate and map qualifications to enable Scottish employers (especially SMEs) to understand and recognise skills and qualifications gained in the military.
Areas of greatest challenge are:
The transition process and preparations for it – while there have been some improvements over the last 4 years, challenges remain in reducing the barriers to successful transition from military to civilian life. These include: the quality and consistency of information, services and support offerings and the breadth, scope and relevance locally of what is offered. In addition, the involvement of partners/spouses in the overall process needs to improve.
The MOD’s nascent Defence Transition Service shows promise for a more holistic approach to better support the individual and their family through transition as they seek to make a home in civilian society. I look forward to seeing more detail as it emerges. The challenge will be to better align policy and delivery models between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. If this is not done, there is a potential vulnerability for the Service leaver and their family, be it in conflicting information or potential gaps in provision of a service. This will require close cooperation between Governments. I am pleased to see that the Veterans’ Strategy goes some way towards addressing this area of concern, but there will be more to do to ensure the best possible outcomes for individuals and their families.
Early service leavers – I feel there is still more that can be done to help Early Service Leavers to successfully integrate back into civilian society. There are still issues around recognising their qualifications and skills, providing appropriate employment opportunities, and understanding and meeting their healthcare needs. There are also challenges centred on the communities that will receive them and their understanding of veterans and what they have to offer.
Health care and Mental Health support – ‘a distinctive Scottish approach’ to veterans’ health is now being considered at strategic level and we need to see how this develops. I would like to see further progress soon on establishing a national managed clinical network to have oversight of delivery. Addressing issues around commitment to funding lifelong services and the costs of specialist care for those with severe and enduring injuries are priorities I’d also like to see progressed this year. Where mental health support is concerned, we’ve yet to see progress on the development of a Mental Health Action Plan for veterans for the long-term delivery of services and support, but I understand this will be pursued through the national managed clinical network when established.
In analysing progress, it also became clear that in a few cases events have overtaken particular recommendations and action has been consolidated with others. This is natural and indeed reflects that progress in general has been made.
I am pleased to say that there are many recommendations where the Scottish Government can quite clearly demonstrate significant progress, and this must be applauded. The headway that’s been made is hugely encouraging but it’s important to remind ourselves that this is a work in progress and to point out that the Government cannot afford to take its eye off the ball.
There are some recommendations where progress has not been as rapid as I would have liked and where we’re not yet making the improvements we need to see. Unsurprisingly, these are predominantly in areas where a joined-up approach to thinking and delivery is required, often across a number of bodies. Of course this type of situation within Government departments is not unique to veterans. Nor is it impossible to fix. Indeed, I have found genuine good will and a willingness across Government to ensure my predecessor’s recommendations are properly realised. I am pleased to say that Graeme Dey and all the Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers I have met have absolutely recognised the challenges and have also been very clear with me on their commitment to moving things along and enabling the best possible outcomes for our veterans.
We need to assess and track progress if we are to focus future efforts and resources in areas of greatest need. I intend to repeat this exercise annually and together with other evidence and knowledge we assemble, the report aims to direct effort and ensure intervention is brought to bear where need is most evident and the greatest impact can be made.
This progress report is a ‘snap shot’ of the Scottish Government and partners’ response to the recommendations and my assessment of this. My next step will be to focus on the Transition process and how it has improved since Eric’s first report to the Scottish Government five years ago. I will be looking at keys aspects of Transition against a background of changing demographics and societal and other developments. I look forward to having further discussions with veterans and stakeholders to consider where improvements have been made and what lessons can be learnt; the areas where there are still concerns and challenges; and to explore how we can best meet the needs of an evolving ex-service community.