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Fox: The objectives of a veterans' policy

Speech to a Veterans’ Summit held by the Conservative Party

"It is pleasing to see so many of you here, from such a wide range of organisations, large and small.

Let me start with an imaginary quotation: "Veterans who have served their community are a valued section of that community, and should be treated accordingly".

To many, that would sound a fairly obvious statement, containing nothing either contentious or unacceptable. But it contains within it many of the thoughts or assumptions that make policy towards 'veterans' far more complex than it may seem on first sight.

Terminology alone can complicate matters. Veterans and ex-servicemen may seem interchangeable concepts, but they have quite specific meanings to some that they do not to most. For some, ex-servicemen may have served in the Armed Forces, but only veterans saw action in conflict. If I occasionally use one rather than the other in potentially the wrong context, you will have to forgive me.

Policy in this field has been a focus of academic study, political debate and voluntary organisation activity for some time. Professor Christopher Dandeker of King's College 's Department of War Studies has written an important paper that appeared in the Armed Forces & Society journal in January this year. In it, he examines the definitions and dilemmas of formulating veterans' policy and gives much food for thought. I warmly recommend you to read it if you have not done so already.

Questions are numerous. What is a veteran? Why is there a duty of care? How should that duty of care be discharged? Who should be prioritised? How do we ensure that duty of care is adequately discharged? None of these have simple answers, and some of the answers may be unwelcome to those who do not have a money tree in their garden.

Even the definition of a veteran can cause controversy. In the UK, we have broader definitions of 'veteran' than Australia or New Zealand. This means we have some 200,000 veterans per million people compared to just 25,000 in Australia. This may be due to the impact of total mobilisation of the population during the war, with both civilian and military suffering alike, thereby expanding how we view the term 'veteran'. For example, only Darwin was bombed in Australia. Most importantly, the definition of veteran has a significant impact on policy making for financial reasons alone.

But why label a veteran a veteran? Why focus Government attention on them at all? Is it because we believe that their unique contribution deserves some form of reward, setting them above other citizens? Or is that we recognise that medical or financial consequences of their service mean veterans risk being left behind and so need help to 'catch up'? Should this be an exercise in combating social exclusion, or a repaying of society's dues? If an ex-servicemen falls into homelessness post-discharge, and then into drugs, and ultimately prison, should he be helped any more than any other prisoner given that he has committed a crime, or do we believe his military service is a mitigating factor?

There is no easy agreement amongst opinion formers in the field. If we were to define veterans as a smaller group of the population, resources could be targeted to those in need - but this would run counter to the idea that a veteran was entitled to a 'reward' for their service. Conversely, a large population of veterans means the jam is spread more thinly. Indeed, would the jam be noticeable anyway if spread so thin?

So one key question I would like to hear your views on today is about how we reconcile these competing claims, competing legitimacies, and competing justifications for assistance. Fundamentally, what should be the objective of a veterans' policy?

Young and Old

At the Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli last year, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a telling point: "We used to say that the ranks of the original Anzacs were thinning with each passing year. They are all gone now. Now what swells each Anzac season is a hunger for their stories. Now we remember them not as old soldiers but as young Australians, often from the same suburbs, streets, districts and towns that we come from".

This is as true here in the UK as elsewhere. But it also has echoes in our own times. When we watch the news bulletins, or read the newspapers, we see photographs of those who have given up their lives in Afghanistan or Iraq in the service of their country. They too are from the streets, villages and towns which we ourselves come from and are familiar with. For those of us of a similar age, we perhaps see reflections of ourselves, our friends and our families. It is a reminder that war does not discriminate. In that thought, we capture the reality that in the last two World Wars, those whose names were carved in stone on village and town memorials were equally family, friends and neighbours and not just sepia photographs.

The sacrifices of Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli are well commemorated there. The battles on this Turkish peninsula, so very far from home, have become part of the founding stories of both those countries, indeed the wellspring of their national identity almost. Vimy Ridge has just such a symbolic role for the people of Canada equally. The Cenotaph on Whitehall acts as a sombre centrepiece in our annual national Remembrance Day celebrations but it is, literally, an empty tomb. Plaques and memorials up and down the land act as local foci for acts of remembrance also.

I believe it is very important to continue the work that goes on in identifying and preserving those memorials under threat, lying vandalised, or sitting vulnerable in buildings listed for demolition. I would be interested in views of how best that could be achieved. The cumulative store of our national memory must be continually replenished by each generation. Time is running out for the wartime generation though.

Post-War Commemmoration

But whereas much effort has gone into ensuring the adequate and appropriate commemoration of all those dead or missing from the World Wars, the fragmented conflicts of the post-war era have militated against such organised memorialisation.

That is why I am keen to see the institution of a Memorial - perhaps a Memorial Wall - at a suitable point here in Central London where the names of all those, missing or dead, from post-war conflicts and peacekeeping operations can be remembered by a grateful nation. From those who died in the conflicts of the 1940s and 1950s to those who perished in the recent helicopter crash in Basra, they deserve no less. I would welcome your thoughts on this idea.

I would also like to discuss with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ways in which the memorials to, and graves of, those who died in post-war conflict can best be preserved to the standard we currently manage for the two World Wars. I realise it is not part of their remit, and they face an immense financial burden in maintaining the war cemeteries currently under their care. Indeed, they will soon have to start replacing World War One gravestones, I believe. Once again, I would be interested to hear views in later sessions on how that could best be achieved.

Duty of Care

One thing which is generally agreed upon is that the state has a reciprocal duty to those it obliges to fight in war at the risk of losing their lives.

Thereafter, the questions are legion. The 'duty of care' does not have a statute of limitation for each individual. Nor is it a pot of money that can be exhausted after a certain amount of usage.

Sometimes a 'need' is so basic or self-evident that it can go unnoticed. When she was asked what was the most important 'disease' in the world, Mother Theresa replied that it was 'loneliness'. The provision of fellowship and friendship to those who experienced the comradeship of the forces is one of the great achievements of organisations such as the Royal British Legion. In the final analysis, it may achieve more than anything the MoD can do. Unquantifiable in its benefits, hence unmeasurable, it is unsuited to the targets government is so often fond of.

In the medical field, war wounds may be obvious from the moment of arrival at a field hospital. But in some cases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, may only arise years later in response to some unknown trigger. Indeed, it should be realised by the wider world that PTSD is not the only form of mental illness which the ex-service community faces. They are like any other part of the population, one in five of whom will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lives. As Combat Stress' most recent Annual Report states, it takes an average of 14 years post-discharge for an individual to approach them in need of help. Only 1 in 10 are referred by a doctor. Many would have been helped by early-intervention, but all too many have already reached the end of the road before they seek the help they need.

Complexity of Need

I do not pretend the issues I have talked about above represent an exhaustive survey - they deliberately do not, as I do not wish to prejudge or restrict your contributions. What I do want to stress is a broader point, and that is that any specific 'need' does not exist in isolation. It is part of a complex web of issues, as interlinked as the lines on an Underground Map.

Discharge from the Army necessitates a massive change in lifestyle, to put it mildly, putting great strain on an individual who may already have experienced a service career containing many stresses. We know that the ex-service community is over-represented amongst the homeless community - a community which is in turn over-represented amongst those needing drug and alcohol rehabilitation or some form of mental healthcare. It may seem odd, now, to think of 'young' veterans, but it is no different from the previous post-war eras when demobbed soldiers played the spoons outside tube stations to beg a few pennies.

In a society whose cohesion is fast ebbing, it may seem that specific problems can be solved with specific, tailored solutions. After all, some would say "surely that is what Government is for? Pull a single lever, or pass a single law, and the problem is solved". If anything, I believe the opposite to be true. If the social problems affecting any community, including that of ex-servicemen, are as inter-linked as I suggest, then the 'silo thinking' which characterises Government is a problem rather than an aid to improvement.

Whilst a Veterans Agency can be taken as a welcome sign of the issue being taken seriously, the Agency will not be worth the headed notepaper if it cannot bring about the improvements we acknowledge are required. It needs to co-ordinate government departments, bang heads together if need be. It cannot just be considered enough in itself.

Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that Government can do it all. Without the work of the organisations all of you here represent, no-one would be cared for at all. The voluntary sector plays an immense role, a role that needs to be enhanced but above all empowered in the widest possible sense. There are so many talents which could be unleashed for the public good if only we could remove the dead hand of government.

Government must not fall into the trap of trying to nationalise compassion. Rhetoric about making greater use of the voluntary sector must not be a cloak for forcing charities to adapt their provision to the Government's policy straitjacket so as to quality for scarce funding. It should not be about forcing charities to amend their objectives to qualify for funding - rather government should reflect on why charities focus on what they do focus on. Above all, Government must always consider whether the voluntary sector is already active in a particular field before trying to set up its own, often inefficient and inadequate, replacement.

Whilst Government doesn't necessarily need to have a role in the provision of services, but it does need to ensure that provision is there when needed and, if necessary, help people navigate their way through the provision.

The papers might not notice, there might not be a raft of performance indicators, but if it leads to competent administration, good government and cared-for veterans, that can only be welcomed.

Politics cannot be simply about measuring and then reflecting the public mood. It must be about identifying what needs to be done, and getting on with it."

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