Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Through my line of work I’ve seen many veterans let down by the MoD and public organisations.
Until the Armed Forces Act 2021 there was no duty of care enshrined in law to ensure veterans did not become disadvantaged when trying to access public services such as healthcare, education and housing.
Traditionally, a lack of coordinated approaches between the MoD and other government departments, recognition of the mental and physical health issues that can originate from serving, as well as a shortage of funding and little contact with personnel once they leave has contributed to poor veteran welfare.
Veterans are still likely to face significant challenges in accessing support despite the new law due to the lack of an enforcement mechanism. This is very worrying as the cost-of-living crisis develops and NHS waiting lists worsen. In Spring 2022, it was reported there had been a 50% increase in veterans becoming, or at risk of, homelessness since March 2020, with many veterans reporting they were let down by their local authorities. This could rise following the charity Crisis predicting that 1.7 million households could be pushed into homelessness this winter.
Issues for veterans accessing support services
For those leaving military service, the process of transitioning to life on Civvy Street can be very challenging. This is especially the case for those who have relied solely on the military for all of their healthcare and housing needs during service, and so don’t know where to start when accessing these types of services through their local authority. In the work that I do, as a solicitor acting for injured personnel and veterans, I often hear stories from people who feel as though they have fallen through the cracks and that no one is there to help them.
Veterans who have been injured during service face particular challenges because they are likely to be more reliant on the NHS and their local authority for support services. They may require specialist rehabilitation and have complex medical needs relating to both their physical and mental health. In these cases it is especially important that transitional care is in place, and that veterans are not left on lengthy waiting lists for treatment. Veterans who are in the process of recovering from injury, or who are suffering from a longer term condition, are also likely to be facing a period of unemployment and may be struggling to cover the cost of rent and living expenses.
Care and support services for veterans have often fallen short of a gold-standard, and this is reflected in the fact that very often the charity sector has had to step in and make up the shortfall.
I have a number of clients who have struggled to access support services and so are reliant either on family or local charities. I have known clients with mobility difficulties struggle to get any help when it comes to providing suitable housing or getting basic adaptations made to their home, such as stair rails, meaning that they are confined to living downstairs and very often can’t easily access facilities to wash themselves. It is unacceptable that anyone should have to live like this.
Another big issue that many of my clients face is getting access to appropriate mental health services. This problem is likely to continue while demand increases and funding for NHS services is restricted. It is not clear what, if any, funding is being given to local authorities to improve these types of services.
The Armed Forces Act 2021
It was hoped that the new Armed Forces Act 2021, which enshrines the Armed Forces Covenant in law would change this. The Armed Forces Covenant itself is a promise by the people of the United Kingdom to ensure that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly.
The 2021 Act introduced a new duty to have regard to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant which recognises:
- the unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
- the need to remove any disadvantages they might face; and
- that special provisions for service people may be justified.
The lack of an enforcement mechanism
All local councils voluntarily signed the Armed Forces Covenant and are now required to comply with the new duty. However, some in the legal profession, who represent veterans, have highlighted that the lack of an enforcement mechanism could mean veterans are still left unsupported.
An enforcement mechanism ensures compliance with the law and deters misconduct – for example an organisation could face a fine and/or suspension for failing to abide by the law, and thereby creates a remedy for those affected to seek redress.
The lack of an enforcement mechanism means that public services won’t face reprimands for failing to remove disadvantages and provide special provisions for veterans.
A way ahead
Further guidance is due from the Government about implementation of the Act. In my view a reporting procedure could be introduced, whereby health, housing and education providers must report back to their regulators and the public on how they’ve reached and supported veterans.
Guidance issued to local councils following the 2021 Act highlight the need for local councils to identify any potential gaps in local policies, processes and procedures across housing, education and healthcare and provide training for staff working in these areas. The reporting could feed back on how their services have or have not met the guidance. This might encourage compliance with the Armed Forces Act 2021 – and therefore in practice, incentivise these services to help veterans with housing, health and education needs. This could also ensure veterans do not have to resort to judicial review to resolve complaints (which could be very expensive).
The Act is an important recognition of the underlying principle of the Armed Force Covenant, which is that veterans are owed a special duty because of the sacrifice they have made in serving their country.
Veterans can find it more difficult to ask for help because they come from an environment which teaches them to be self-sufficient, and there can be a stigma associated with asking for help. If more barriers are placed in their way, this might deter them from seeking help in the first place.
What matters now is that this is reflected in practical action taken by all branches of local and national government to ensure that this duty is upheld, and that every veteran is able to access the services they need in an appropriate and timely manner so that no one is left behind. I hope the national government will take note of the Act’s shortfalls and help local government adhere to this duty of care.
Hannah Swarbrick is a Senior Associate in the Military team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. She works on a wide variety of complex and high value personal injury and clinical negligence claims on behalf of service personnel and their families.
Hannah is passionate about supporting her clients, many of whom have suffered life-changing injuries. She has an understanding of the issues which affect service personnel whose careers have been ended by injury and the process of transition from military to civilian life. She fights to secure early compensation to ensure that her clients’ care and treatment needs are met as soon as possible.