London, UK – 10 May 2013 By Mark Collinson

British veterans’ benefits initiatives look to government for leadership and funding 

Since the announcement of UK defence cuts, including a reduction of 20 thousand regular Army soldiers by 2017, Labour party critics and policy experts have begun the probing process of weighing the coalition’s planned strategy for after-service government assistance for Britain’s veterans. Some experts say such care – which might include educational, housing or health benefits – is a difficult thing to define in British society. Though similar services may be available to serving military, no catch all government programme exists to assess or award such aid to ex-military.

“Who are veterans in the 21st century and what are their rights?” This is a question circulating among policy planners and military alike, Hugh Milroy of the charity Veterans Aid told DefenceReport. Milroy, a former RAF officer and chief executive of the charity, focuses his organisation’s work on securing accommodation for ex-forces candidates.

But while charitable organisations have taken on some of the after-service care needs faced by some veterans, policy planners have been critical of what they deem to be a government sidestep to avoid the issue. And with further cuts to Britain’s defence budget, along with what critics say is fading morale of many British troops who fear that they could find themselves without jobs, many feel there is an even greater need to assess the rights of veterans to ensure that their transitional period is a smooth one.

Labour: we need to boost forces’ morale

“This is a very difficult time at the moment for so many people who are being forced to leave against their will, so morale is a real problem,” Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy told DefenceReport. “I think when the election is held in 2015 Labour is going to come forward with a serious plan to boost the morale of our Armed Forces,” he added.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was not available for comment, but an MoD spokesperson said “we know the transition into civilian life can be daunting which is why we ensure that all service leavers have access to crucial support including housing advice, career guidance and social benefits.” Jim Murphy, who has been critical of the coalition’s defence policy and particularly the handling of personnel cuts, told DefenceReport that “although the Labour Party disagree with the government on many issues, on the basis that this is the policy, it needs to be a success for the country’s sake.”

Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly began addressing this issue through the creation in 2012 of a relatively new role for Lord Ashcroft as Special Representative for Veteran Transition. Government sources have said the peer will be working across all government departments to review the help that military personnel receive as they move from uniformed service to civilian life. His work includes the so-called Veterans’ Transition Review. This survey, whose results will be reported by the close of 2013, reportedly aims to “look at the advice and support available for personnel returning to civilian life from the Armed Forces” and will scrutinise “all aspects of transition, consulting government departments, charities, industry and the Services themselves.”

One major concern for Lord Ashcroft will be to find sustainable accommodation for veterans who will be joining a housing market which is expected to reach an all time high by 2015 with a 14 percent rise in housing costs forecast. Milroy, who’s Veterans Aid charity helps find up to 200 UK veterans accommodation yearly, believes that a scheme similar to a student loan would be extremely effective and could dramatically change the system. “So you finish your time in the Armed Forces and are then allowed a loan. This allows you to get the training that you want, to get sustainable accommodation and get on with your life. Once you reach a certain amount you can pay it back,” he says.

Jobs, economy troubles spread to veterans groups

Another debate taking centre stage revolves around how to help veterans get back into work. Whilst the UK has avoided a triple-dip recession by a fraction of a percent, unemployment has risen to nearly eight percent. These factors have led experts to question how veterans might be eased into the jobs market without upsetting the wider UK economy. Several key challenges still face veterans who are seeking to return to work.

Experts say one of these is a reluctance among employers to employ ex-military. “There is something in the British culture that is a little suspicious of the ex-serviceman because they feel that he has a particular way of doing things, and won’t be willing to change,” says Professor Edgar Jones of the Department of War Studies at King’s College.

Perhaps an even darker side to the challenge of reintegrating soldiers into British society is recent research that connects violent crime with UK veterans. A recent study by King’s College London examined the links between the military and violent crime, using some 14 thousand official criminal records from British soldiers deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. It found that around three thousand soldiers under the age of 30 had a criminal conviction for a violent offence. This translates to 20.6 percent, compared to 6.7 percent of the general UK population.

Professor Jones told DefenceReport that these statistics do not necessarily paint a negative picture of veterans, but may frame some of the bigger issues facing British society. “People forget that the Armed Forces are a reflection of society as a whole, and the patterns that you see in the military really reflect that of society as a whole.” “Some of the best soldiers I have had the privilege to command most directly, that is at junior level, had convictions. They came from booze-fuelled corners of big cities where a conviction was almost a rite of passage,” added Major General John Moore-Bick, former director of Staff Duties at the MoD and now General Secretary for the Forces Pension Fund.

In the UK today, a person with a conviction for a “violent crime” is still eligible to be considered for military service. And while insiders may feel that convictions do not translate to problematic work records, civilian recruiters must weigh these attributes against an increasingly competitive labour market.

In the US, First Lady Michelle Obama and White House advisors aim to combat American veteran joblessness with the Joining Forces campaign that has encouraged a number of businesses to employ veterans. Most notably, Walmart Stores, Inc. has pledged to employ 100 thousand veterans over the next five years. The Shadow Defence Secretary explained to DefenceReport how the Labour Party is planning something similar for the UK.

Government programmes and public stigma

“We have launched the Veterans Interview Programme (VIP) which is getting some of the biggest employers in the country to offer guaranteed job interviews to out-of-work veterans. So even though we may not be in government, we are attracted to the idea.” But according to some critics, such a scheme might drive a wedge into the job market and reduce public sympathy towards veterans and the Armed Forces.

Jim Murphy responded to these fears by asserting that ”even people out of work understand that we have a responsibility to those who have returned from Afghanistan. So I hear the argument. I just don’t believe it.” At present, service leavers can access resettlement support two years either side of their discharge, including the Career Transition Partnership. According to the MoD, this programme “historically” gets those looking for work back into full-time employment “within six months.”

“The skills that can be learnt in the Armed Forces are exceptional,” says the Shadow Defence Secretary, ”and what we have to talk about is that, and about the remarkable skills people leaving the military have.” It is an agenda with which Hugh Milroy very much agrees, beginning with refocusing on veterans’ marketable skill sets. “There is going to be a post-heroes time, when people won’t even remember how to spell ‘Afghanistan’.

We have to be here for the long haul and stop with the constant reflection. The real issue is how we move forward,” adds Milroy. With the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 nearing these are some of the issues experts say must be considered. According to them, the British Army may be shrinking, but its veterans’ needs are not.

Feature photo / “RAF Honour Guard” – Jimmy White

By Mark Collinson

Mark is a London based security reporter specialising in cyber and network warfare and security.