By Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
When we think of Forces’ welfare we rightly think of the support our servicemen and women get when on duty: the care they receive after injury or the quality of their accommodation, for example. It is a tribute to the many service charities, in particular the Royal British Legion, that these issues are a priority for the nation, just as they were a priority for Labour when in power and still are now in Opposition.
There is another major issue in service welfare. According to Combat Stress, of the 191,000 personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan about 7,600 could develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and another 37,600 may be battling other debilitating mental health problems, such as depression, mood disorders and anxiety. These issues can take up to 13 years to reveal themselves and so we must act now to prevent an epidemic of invisible injury.
That is why we are today proposing that the Government set up a £1m research fund for ‘legacy issues’ from Afghanistan and Iraq, with a particular focus on veterans’ mental health. Charities would be able to bid for the funds to support long-term policy research in this area. We would hope that this would lead to ideas the Government can adopt now or we would adopt in SDSR 2015.
The country owes it to all those who have served to provide real post-service support and not one of those who have served should be forgotten following our departure from Afghanistan in 2014. The unique nature of military service does not end when a conflict finishes. Whether in dealing with mental or physical injury, depression or stress, the courage shown by service personnel is not just on the battlefield but in recovering from the long term affects of conflict.
The Government should fund this work by making real savings at the top of our Forces. Our Forces are ‘top heavy’: we have more admirals than ships, proportionately more officers in our Forces than our international counterparts and the number of most senior officers has risen by a third since 1990. And yet the Government have said they are cutting the top “in broad proportion” to cuts to personnel throughout the Forces. By cutting in broad proportion they are perpetuating the imbalance rather than tackling it and so we would cut further at the top in order to have more balanced Services. Precise figures will be subject to our policy review, but this could save tens of millions of pounds.
This is not a departure from our argument about defence spending. We know savings have to be made, which is why we have identified £5bn of savings and know we have to go further, so have said we would also make cuts to the civil service, accept the cuts to the Tornado fleet to date and would look at reforming the Army’s regional structure. It is right, however, that we seek to redistribute funding within the defence budget to serve our priorities.
The Royal British Legion have shown that by 2020 there will be an estimated 1.8 million people in the Armed Forces community living with long-standing illness and 700,000 living below the poverty line. It is simply not enough for the Government of the day to make backward-looking attacks while falling short on tackling these issues. The defence review was 76 pages long but only two were dedicated to service welfare. That is simply not good enough.
The Royal British Legion have today said:
“The Armed Forces community is facing a “perfect storm” of health and welfare needs in coming years as the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq combine with defence cuts and strains on public sector support. It is the nation’s obligation under the Armed Forces Covenant to ensure that these issues are addressed in a comprehensive manner providing for long-term and meaningful support”.
We could not agree more, which is why we are seeking creative and fair proposals to support those who give so much to our country. A research fund would be a small change that could make a big difference and we hope the Government will listen.