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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Agriculture Support and Food Security, National Planning Framework 4, Remembrance Commemorations and Support for Veterans and Armed Forces Community, Urgent Question, Decision Time, Gene-editing Technology, Correction


Contents


Remembrance Commemorations and Support for Veterans and Armed Forces Community

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-06637, in the name of Keith Brown, on remembrance commemorations and support for the veterans and armed forces community.

15:28  

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

I am delighted to present the Scottish Government’s sixth annual update to Parliament on support for the veterans and armed forces community in Scotland.

Since 2017, we have updated members annually, to showcase the work that we are doing to improve support, to ensure that our veterans and their families face no disadvantage, and to ensure that Scotland is their destination of choice after service. I welcome the opportunity to deliver our update this year and to provide the chamber with detail on the excellent work that has been undertaken. This week, the Scottish Government has published “Support for the Veterans and Armed Forces Community 2022”, which details fully the work that we have undertaken over the past 12 months.

Much has changed since I presented our last update in 2021, and I am pleased that, since then, much has been achieved. As we continue to move on from the pandemic, I have seen real progress being made this year across a wide range of areas of support provided to veterans, as well as to service leavers and their families. As always, that excellent work has been made possible only by working collaboratively and productively with partners in the public, private and third sectors.

This time last year, I reported to the chamber that we planned to refresh our veterans strategy action plan. As members will be aware, this year we did just that. In the summer, we published the refreshed plan, which details the important services and support that the Scottish Government and our partners continue to provide. During the development of the plan, we undertook a light-touch consultation with key partners to determine the extent to which our existing commitments remained valid, and whether there were opportunities to add more detail to those commitments, or indeed to add new commitments altogether.

During that process, we identified seven new commitments, one of which was to work with the United Kingdom Government and other devolved Administrations to support the delivery of the commitments in the UK Government’s “Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan 2022-2024” that impact veterans right across the UK, such as recognising and addressing the historical hurt experienced by some members of the veterans community.

For example, we continue to support and promote the independent LGBT review, which I was delighted to be able to discuss with Fighting with Pride earlier this month. I again encourage people and organisations to contribute to the review’s call for evidence, which is open until 1 December. Last year, I was pleased to see the UK Government’s commitment to allow veterans who were dismissed from the service on the basis of their sexuality, due to the historical ban on being homosexual in the military, apply to have their medals restored at no cost.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the pandemic is receding, many of its challenges remain, not least the financial stresses and strains that continue to challenge the charitable sector. Last year, I reported on the estimated shortfall across the UK of £250 million in fundraising compared with the amount for a normal year. To mitigate some of those challenges, the 2022-23 Scottish veterans fund was increased to £500,000 per annum. The priorities this year were projects offering support to early service leavers and promoting collaboration within and between the veterans charity sector and other non-veterans organisations. In total, 14 new projects received funding, allowing a range of initiatives to be supported, from employment support to walking with the wounded and outdoor counselling from the Venture Trust.

Support for small local projects includes funding for Networks of Wellbeing to create a programme of away days for veterans in and around the Huntly area, to help to combat social isolation, and funding for FirstLight Trust to establish a new cafe hub for veterans and their families in Falkirk.

I will say more in my closing speech about this year’s important anniversary of the Falklands conflict. Connected to that, of course, is the critical issue of the mental health of our veterans and ensuring that we do everything that we can to support those who are most in need.

Since my last update to Parliament, the Scottish Government has published the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”. An implementation board has been established to take that forward and provide clear and timely access to mental health and wellbeing support for our veterans. Linked to that is our commitment to continue to provide funding support to Combat Stress and Veterans First Point in 2022-23.

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Susie Hamilton as our new Scottish veterans commissioner. Susie is herself a veteran, having served in the Royal Navy, and I very much look forward to working with her over the coming months and years. I wish her the very best in the role.

You will be aware, Presiding Officer, that our previous commissioners produced a series of excellent reports, and we continue to prioritise the delivery of the recommendations that they made. We will continue to encourage the UK Government to do the same for those of the commissioner’s recommendations that are relevant to it. We look forward to the commissioner’s annual progress report, and we are pleased to be able to again provide evidence to support the commissioner’s assessment.

I know that Susie will be setting her key priorities and objectives, and that she will work extremely hard to support our veterans and their families. I am delighted that she is our first woman commissioner, not least because of the very important things that we have to consider, such as the way in which women were treated in the Royal Navy when they first went on the ships, the legacy issues that we have to deal with from that time and the many other issues that are particular to women serving in the armed forces.

Knowing how many veterans there are in Scotland, where they are and what support they might need is vitally important if we are to provide them with the right assistance and guidance at the right time and in the right place. We are working very hard to put together an accurate picture, and it was great to see the veterans question in Scotland’s 2022 census.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

On the interrogation of the census, I urge the Government to try to identify the children of veterans and veteran families. I know that that is a challenge, because of the questions that were asked in the census, but that seems to be a piece of data that we are struggling to identify. How many young people are related to veterans and serving officers?

Keith Brown

That is an important point. In my constituency, we have one of only two schools in the UK to house the children of veterans and service personnel. I am well aware of some of the issues and challenges that children of armed forces personnel face that the school seeks to address.

If it is any reassurance to the member, although the census is quite limited in its questions, we also have three other, comprehensive surveys, including the Scottish household survey and the Scottish health survey, which also provide helpful information about veterans and their families.

We look forward to receiving the commissioner’s annual progress reports. She will now be setting her key priorities and objectives.

As has been said, knowing how many veterans there are in Scotland and how their families are impacted by their service is very important. We are trying to put together an accurate picture of that. We expect to see the first data from the question in the census, rather than from the surveys that I have just mentioned, in 2024.

In addition, the three major Scottish household surveys that I mentioned included a veterans question in their current suites. We have also worked with the UK Government on the development of the first UK-wide veteran-specific survey, which we expect to be launched in the next few days. That may also provide some further comfort to Mr Whitfield in the area that he mentioned. That information will help us to improve our understanding of the profile, circumstances, needs and feelings of veterans in Scotland, which in turn will help to inform policy and services.

Most of us are aware of the challenges that veterans can face when transitioning out of the military. Often, we hear of difficulties in finding suitable and enduring employment and of veterans’ experience and qualifications not being adequately understood and appreciated. We might hear something along the lines of, for example, a colour sergeant or a warrant officer who has come out and got a job as a truck driver and is told that they should feel grateful, even though that is not a real recognition of the experience, qualifications and abilities that they accumulated and displayed when they were armed forces personnel. Our veterans deserve opportunities that are commensurate with their experience and qualifications.

A great deal of work has been carried out on that—not least by my predecessor, Graeme Dey. The Scottish credit and qualifications framework partnership’s qualifications and skills mapping tool went live in February 2022. The Scottish Government will provide a further £13,500 of funding this year to support the on-going development and expansion of the tool. The Scottish Government is also committed to increasing the number of veterans that it employs, and it continues to explore ways to achieve that, including through the going forward into employment programme.

The Scottish Government also had a stand at this year’s career transition partnership careers fair in Edinburgh, where we had the opportunity to engage directly with several armed forces personnel. Service leavers and veterans were also involved in discussions on the type of roles that exist in the Scottish Government, where to find those roles and how to apply. Since 2021, at least 34 veterans have joined the Scottish Government.

We are all aware that we face a very challenging economic situation. The cost crisis affects us all. We are doing what we can to support our veterans and their families. That is why, this year, we have expanded the Scottish veterans fund criteria to encourage projects that offer support to veterans who are suffering from the impact of the current cost of living crisis. According to today’s figure, food inflation has increased to 14.7 per cent. That presents real challenges for people. In addition to general advice, we provide financial advice and support for people to get into the right employment.

The cost crisis also affects housing. We are working hard to support veterans and their families in that area. The veterans homelessness prevention pathway was published in January. We continue to provide funding through our affordable housing supply programme to deliver homes specifically for veterans where local authorities identify that as a strategic priority, and we continue to support Housing Options Scotland to provide its military matters project.

Although there have been improvements across Scotland, and to some extent across the UK, it still seems sensible for the Ministry of Defence to advise everyone who joins the armed forces that they are entitled to put their name down for council or social housing on the day that they start their service. I am not saying that they would necessarily want to access that during their time in the service, but when they come out, they will certainly be grateful for the points that they have accumulated for the time that they have been on the list in the areas where that applies. That would seem a straightforward thing for the MOD to do.

As I said, the cost crisis affects housing, too, and we will continue to support Housing Options Scotland.

As always at this time of year, perhaps the most important thing in relation to veterans is our desire to remember those who have served, those who continue to serve and all those who have been marked by conflict. I will speak more about the remembrance side of the debate in my closing remarks, but I announce today that a new scheme is being launched by the Scottish Government to fund the cost of lost or stolen medals that veterans who are resident in Scotland earned during their time in service. Many of our veterans still bear physical and mental scars from conflicts, and their medals are important symbols of their courageous service.

The scheme is part of a wide range of support that is provided to show our on-going appreciation for veterans and their families. Where a veteran is entitled—we will rely on the MOD to tell us when somebody has been through the process and is entitled to have replacement medals—the Scottish Government will step in to bear that cost on their behalf .

Our veterans and their families continue to contribute a huge amount to our society right across Scotland. I remain committed to providing the very best support for the entire veterans and armed forces community. As ever, I look forward to the contributions of members, and to responding to them in due course.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the enduring importance of the Remembrance period to families and communities across Scotland and pays tribute to the sacrifices of those individuals from across Scotland and the UK, the Commonwealth and Allied Nations, which ensured the peace and freedoms that people enjoy today; recognises the Armed Forces’ and others’ efforts in peace-keeping and peace-making across the world as ways of preventing war and the consequences of war; acknowledges the importance of Scotland’s veterans and Armed Forces community and greatly values the significant contribution that they continue to make to Scotland; supports the Scottish Government’s veterans strategy action plan, which has a clear vision to ensure the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families; notes the Scottish Government’s progress thus far in delivering the commitments it has made in the action plan, and agrees that the Scottish Government should continue to work in partnership across the Scottish public, private and charitable sectors, and with the UK Government and other devolved administrations, to ensure that the veterans and Armed Forces community receives the best possible support and access to services across Scotland.

15:41  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am delighted to open on behalf of the Conservative Party. I remind members that I am the third generation of my family to have served in the forces, and my son has just completed his service, making it four generations in total.

When it comes to remembrance, every one of our servicemen and women will have different views and memories of their time. They will have served in different theatres and done very different things, but one thing is for sure: all those who have served know that, when push comes to shove, they can rely on their fellow servicemen and women to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in never forgetting their shared experiences and the sacrifices that they have made in defence of their country’s freedom.

Some veterans and their families who gather on Sunday will remember those who died in two world wars. Others will remember the sacrifices that were made in more recent conflicts in the Falkland Islands, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Each person will be united in silent tribute—pausing, acknowledging and reflecting on all that has been given to secure our future, which is, I am afraid, once again under threat. The devastation of war has returned to our continent in the form of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

This remembrance Sunday, I will also pay tribute to the Ukrainians who are not only defending their country but fighting to protect the security, freedoms and democracy of the free world. [Applause.] Those are the same values that our servicemen and women are prepared to sacrifice everything for.

We should never forget that the oath of allegiance that is taken by everyone in our armed forces is unconditional; if the ultimate sacrifice has to be paid, that is part of the deal that they sign up to. That high price is not always fully appreciated. While we sleep safely in our beds at night, our servicemen and women are watching our backs. Meanwhile, their families face the very real threat of the loss of their loved ones, knowing that their lives could never be the same again. Burying a son or daughter, or wife or husband, before their time is something that no parent or partner wishes to do.

I know how much support families provide to the armed services community at home, and that support is invaluable on the front line. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude that we should never forget. Supporting our armed forces and veterans community is truly vital, which is why I welcome the continued support of the Scottish poppy appeal, and I am delighted that I will help it with its collections tomorrow in Edinburgh’s garden of remembrance. That organisation plays a crucial role in helping servicemen and women and their families transition from military to civilian life.

That change can be far from easy. Some fall on hard times and struggle to reach out for support. Others find it difficult to talk about what they have seen and done, and they find it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Passing judgment on them never helps. Their wellbeing and the welfare of all our veterans should mean much more to us than that. That is why I praise the efforts of charities such as Combat Stress and Veterans First Point, which are leading the way in providing mental health support.

I continue to commend the combined approach that is being taken by the UK Government and the three devolved Governments in implementing a joint strategy for our veterans community, which will run until 2028, and I welcome the points that have been clarified and announced this afternoon by our minister, Mr Keith Brown. By working together, we can create a thriving veterans community in which ex-servicemen and women are empowered to play a key role in society long after they have left the forces. To do that, we need to recognise the skills that they bring from military service to civilian life. That is a vision that we should all work towards and support.

I pay tribute to some of the work that goes on overseas, too. I am always inspired by the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Its duty of care and tireless devotion to the upkeep of war graves in 23,000 locations across the world are commendable. I will give a small example of that work.

When I was serving in Uganda, I was asked to visit a war grave of three soldiers, which I did. It was in an appalling condition. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission dispatched a team out to repair the graves and to make the site as it should be. That happened in an area that was not particularly safe to go to. However, it did not balk at its responsibility.

When I have been around the world, I have seen the immaculate condition of our war cemeteries. That commemorates the huge sacrifices that the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who are buried in them have made.

We should never forget that remembrance is not just a tradition of one country. I remember being struck while on tour in Egypt, when I visited the German Africa Corps war memorial in El Alamein, by the flowers and messages that were left in the cemetery. I was naively surprised, as I had never really thought about what remembrance means to other countries and the sacrifices of their soldiers. We should never forget that. I learned the lesson that day that everyone who dies in war should be remembered so that we do not repeat the mistakes that our predecessors made.

I confirm that we will support the Scottish Government’s motion. Helping veterans is above party politics, and it is right at this time of year that we all come together to support our armed services community.

I wish Keith Brown a successful visit to the Falklands, and I acknowledge his active service on those islands.

At 11 o’clock this Sunday, all those who have served and are currently serving will take time to pause, reflect and remember all those who have served and are no longer with us. We will always acknowledge their sacrifice and their early passing in the service of their country. We should never forget that they gave their all for our today.

15:48  

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Remembrance week is a sober period of reflection for many in our country, and it is important for all of us to come together and show solidarity. In that spirit, I was pleased to sign the Government’s motion in support of what it intends to achieve on behalf of all of us for the service of those who have given so much for all of us.

I have served in the Army reserve for 12 years, and I know at first hand the sacrifices that members of our armed forces make. We owe a great debt of gratitude to them. I am proud to wear my regimental tie today—I see that Edward Mountain is wearing his—and I will do so on Sunday, too, when I gather with friends at the cenotaph in George Square in Glasgow to remember our colleagues who have suffered life-changing injuries, and, in my case, one of my best friends, who was killed in Helmand province 10 years ago this coming April.

That is a moment for us not only to reflect on a lacerating sense of pain at a life that was lost too soon, but to get together to have a few pints and a laugh. For many people—in particular, for those who have served—remembrance day is not just about solemn remembrance, but is about catching up with old friends. We often talk about how old pals are getting on and, over the past few years, it has been an eye-opening experience to see the difficulties that many are going through, which they often cannot make clear to their comrades and about which they are reluctant to seek help. There is a culture, particularly in the Army, of not talking about such things.

It is a vocation that not many can relate to, these days—one that requires them to sacrifice spending time with family and friends, and isolates them from everyday civilian life. However, despite that personal sacrifice, they are often not supported properly when they return from tours of duty overseas or leave the armed forces entirely—often, angry and frustrated.

Such individuals are more susceptible than the rest of the population to mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol related problems and, in many instances, homelessness; yet, even though we know that to be the case, the support is still not there to alleviate those issues. That pressure has become only more acute among my own generation, after more than two decades of intense conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which more than 100,000 people from our country served in operations Telic and Herrick.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and now the cost of living crisis are having a significant impact on many veterans, who are already vulnerable and struggling. The Scottish Government must do all that it can to improve the targeted support that they need.

The mental health charity Combat Stress has seen a much higher contact rate from veterans seeking help than in previous years. Such mental health issues often lead to a reliance and dependency on alcohol and, to a lesser extent, drugs. The Forces in Mind Trust has detailed the impact that alcohol and drug abuse can have on veterans and their families. Its research suggests that alcohol misuse is the primary substance misuse problem for veterans, with many developing a reliance during their service.

We know that drug misuse is also prevalent in the armed forces more generally. Data from the Ministry of Defence shows that, in 2019, 660 Army personnel were dismissed from their duties after failing a drugs test. That is the equivalent of an entire infantry battalion. Again, we need to ask ourselves why that is happening and how we can create a system in which service personnel do not feel the need to turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism or a way of fitting in.

We may also want to reflect on the fact that that issue is increasingly prevalent in wider society—the Army and the armed forces in general will reflect that—and on whether we need to keep that zero-tolerance policy in which, in effect, we destroy someone’s career over it. Could there be a more intelligent way to help people, rather than simply casting them out? Under the current policy, personnel who misuse substances are removed from the services, by disciplinary or administrative means, following a single offence. That seems an unnecessarily destructive and blunt instrument.

Housing is another persistent problem. Positive progress has been made, but too many people still leave the armed forces and become homeless. The most recent figures, for the year to April 2022, show a 24 percent increase, from 33 to 41 people, registering as homeless after leaving armed forces accommodation. Poppyscotland has suggested that a veterans housing action group would help to reduce those figures, and it is to be hoped that its recommendations will be incorporated into Government policy.

Labour supports the establishment of clear statutory targets to underpin the delivery of the armed forces covenant. We also support the implementation of all the recommendations of Poppyscotland’s manifesto. It is the Parliament’s official charity. We want to strengthen that engagement, implement the veterans’ housing pathway, and target provision aimed at ensuring that the most vulnerable service personnel and veterans experience a good transition. Poppyscotland’s recommendations from the most recent election campaign remain valid.

Although the cabinet secretary has made constructive and helpful points, it would be helpful if he would address specifically in his closing speech those actions that he is taking to meet each of Poppyscotland’s recommendations—in particular, commissioning and acting on an independent review of existing targeted provision, aimed at ensuring that the most vulnerable serving personnel and veterans experience that good transition; fully exempting military compensation from financial assessments for social security benefits; and addressing how the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland can work with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence to collect better data on veterans and ensure that that is shared, where appropriate, in order to simplify the process for injured veterans who apply for or receive benefits under the new system.

I assure the cabinet secretary and the Government that they will have this party’s full support on any measures that will improve the lives of our ex-servicemen and women. However, as I have highlighted, we as a country still need to do much more in many areas to help them live fulfilling civilian lives.

15:54  

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am very proud to rise for the Liberal Democrats in today’s important debate. I thank Keith Brown for his remarks and, indeed, for his service—we recognise that at this time. I, too, associate myself with the Government’s work in this area. All parties want it to succeed, particularly in relation to homelessness, mental ill health and addiction issues, as Paul Sweeney rightly mentioned.

If I was to make one plea, it would be in relation to Martin Whitfield’s intervention about the children of veterans. I remind the minister that, in 2011, my party introduced a dedicated pupil premium for every child of serving armed forces personnel in England, amounting to £320 per child. The service pupil premium has never been replicated in Scotland, but it recognises the disruption and trauma that such children often face. I would ask that the minister reflects on that and addresses that in his closing remarks.

Keith Brown

I thank the member for making that point, which he has made before. My answer has been that we have a different system in Scotland. However, it might help him to know that we are providing funding of around £50,000 this year for the national education officer for children and young people of armed forces and veteran families, to support delivery of the Selous report recommendations, including those on the collection of the educational expenses of service and veterans’ children at the current time. [Keith Brown has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]

I will give you the time back, Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am very grateful for the constructive content of that intervention. That is a progressive measure to bring forward, and I am grateful to the Government for doing so.

We owe much to our veterans, alive and dead. Over the coming days, will take time to remember them. My mother had two great uncles. One died during the war; the other lived. I have mentioned the first before—I spoke about him in my first speech in the Scottish Parliament. He was a 23-year-old private of the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles out of Saskatchewan. He was killed, along with 80 per cent of his battalion, on the first day of the battle of Mont Sorrel on the Ypres salient.

I will never fully understand the horror of that day. It was the first day that German soldiers had ever used flamethrowers. Indeed, my great grand-uncle was never found; it is very likely that he was buried. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Belgium. His name was Alexander Bennett and I am named for him.

The second, who was also Canadian, was an airman. His name was Arthur Roy Brown. He is credited with shooting down and killing Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s famous Red Baron in a dogfight over France. He never accepted that accolade. He explained for the remainder of his life, in characteristic generosity of spirit that, although he had hit the Red Baron, he could never be sure that it was his shot that killed the notorious flying ace. Sure enough, historians and forensic pathologists would later go on to prove that the Red Baron had in fact been taken down by an Australian ground machine-gun crew. However, Arthur’s place in history remains intact.

This remembrance Sunday, families the world over will remember stories of tragedy and heroism in equal measure. Although living memory of the two world wars has all but passed beyond us, there is a new poignancy to our commemorations this year. The armistice might have been signed 104 years ago, but we wake to images of trench warfare and mechanised slaughter in continental Europe each morning. Footage of dugouts, dirt, shellfire and carnage are livestreamed across our social media platforms.

As the old adage has it, “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it”. In addition to the horror of the battlefields of Kherson and Donetsk are blasts that emulate Flanders and the Somme. We see civilian suffering being repeated in Ukraine, too. The bombed-out carcases of Mariupol and Kharkiv could just as easily be Coventry or Dresden in the 1940s for all that is left of them.

It is not the fighting men and women of Ukraine who have failed to learn the lessons of history but their Russian aggressors. As they desperately try to roll back the Russian advance along the eastern front, Ukrainians are fighting for much more than their national sovereignty. They represent the front line in a clash of ideals; it is a struggle for the soul of humanity. It is because they decided to take a stand and resist the blitzkrieg of Putin’s expansionism that they have ultimately spared others from having to. It is certainly the case that, had they not, Putin’s gangsters would not have stopped at Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine, like those we remember on armistice day, could well come to define our century. It underpins why this season of remembrance is so important: for as long as men crave power and dominance over their neighbours, there will be conflict.

This weekend, I will think of my uncles’ heroism and sacrifice, but I will also think of those fighting for their lives and their freedom in the towns and cities of Ukraine. For our tomorrows, they are giving their todays. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes. Let us pray that, when the bloodshed is over and when Putin is deposed and his war machine is dismantled, across the whole of humanity, we will learn the lessons of history and never allow what has happened to happen again.

We move to the open debate. We are now rather tight for time, so I would be grateful if members could stick to their time allocation.

16:00  

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

A number of welcome traditions exist in the Parliament. One such tradition is the annual armed forces and veterans debate that is held in advance of remembrance Sunday. This is, I think, the ninth or so such set piece that I have taken part in, mostly from the back benches but, for a spell, from the privileged position of leading it as veterans minister. For the overwhelming part, the debates have been constructive and devoid of party politicking, and I hope that that will be the case today. The signs thus far are certainly positive in that regard.

In that spirit, let me begin by saying how good it is to see Edward Mountain taking part in the 2022 iteration of the armed forces and veterans debate. [Applause.] Owing to ill health, Mr Mountain was unable to take part in the debate last year, and both he and his contribution were missed. There is much that he and I disagree on, but we share common ground when it comes to wanting the best for our current and former military personnel and their families. I know that that goes for the wider membership of the Parliament, too.

I will focus my contribution on some of the realities of the here and now for the current military. Last week, I had the pleasure of participating along with colleagues in the Parliament’s formal engagement event with the Army in Scotland, which was held at Leuchars station. We were provided with an update, in considerable and welcome detail, on basing plans for the Army there. The plans include increasing personnel numbers at Leuchars, with the relocation of Three Scots—or the Black Watch to those of us of a certain vintage—from Fort George. It will be good to see the Black Watch returning to its traditional recruiting heartland.

What was less welcome was the apparent admission in the presentation of the recruitment and retention issues that the Black Watch and other elements of the Army are facing, resulting in only 301 personnel being captured by that move. That is what has been done to one of our historic regiments by the actions of successive UK Governments. That is so regrettable.

Regrettable, too, is the recent admission by a UK Government minister that, across the British military, more than 2,900 serving personnel, along with 38,000 veterans, are having to rely on universal credit to top up their income. How on earth did a country that claims to value those who serve get into such a situation? I ask that question genuinely to seek improvement, not to make a party-political point.

Let me recognise that, against that backdrop, there has been welcome MOD investment in infrastructure in Scotland. The investment in the Royal Air Force footprint in the north-east is an example of that and, provided that there is no further basing review or a watering-down of proposals for Leuchars, the developments in that regard are positive. If delivered, the plans for Leuchars will result in new accommodation blocks and potentially family housing being provided. Good stuff!

However, what about other military locations? RM Condor in my Angus South constituency has long attracted commentary about the quality of the accommodation that is provided to the marines who are based there. Earlier this year, media reports suggested that the base was to be the subject of long-overdue upgrading. Unfortunately, I understand such reports to be untrue.

I am concerned—I hope that this is misplaced concern—that, given the significant budget challenges that the UK Government faces, the Treasury might look to make reductions to anticipated MOD funding, despite the UK Government’s commitment to increase that budget to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030. While he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was accused of mounting a sustained “corporate raid” on military spending. Incidentally, that accusation came from the then, and still, Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.

My plea—it is a plea, not a party-political point—is that, whatever decisions are made on military funding and whatever future moneys are earmarked for hardware, a protected spending priority must be the men and women who serve in the military, along with their families. That is the very least that they are owed.

16:04  

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I agree with everything that Graeme Dey has just said. His points were well made, and I endorse them and wish to be associated with them.

I, too, pay tribute to the veterans who are members of the Parliament—specifically, the cabinet secretary and my good friend Edward Mountain—and all those who support veterans throughout the United Kingdom.

I will limit my brief remarks to the subject of remembrance—I will not attempt anything sophisticated or clever; I offer only my humble reflections. The annual act of remembrance is a moment in the year that punctuates our lives, and this year’s remembrance will have added poignancy given the passing of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth. We came to know well how much it meant to Queen Elizabeth to lead the nation in the annual act of remembrance at the cenotaph.

We will once again be called, by the two minutes of silence, to reflect on the sacrifices and losses of the past. With the passing of the generations that experienced world war, it becomes ever more important and necessary for us to take time to consider what remembrance means to us today, and what it teaches us about the present and the future. I am old enough to have had the privilege of meeting veterans of the first and second world wars. The nature of the fighting that those men experienced is beyond my ken. They experienced the sternest test of the most awful type to defend our nation and a set of ideals: democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

It has been more than a decade since the last of the first world war veterans died and, sadly, we will soon bid adieu to the second world war generation. I thank God for that generation and what they did for all of us in defeating Nazism in all its grisly ghastliness.

Many young Scots continue to go to the battlefields of France and Flanders, very often as part of organised school trips, and long may that continue. I know what the experience of visiting Ypres, the Menin Gate, which was mentioned earlier, Tyne Cot and Thiepval did for our children. Seeing the thousands of names of the missing—most of them young men not much older than our children—was deeply moving for them and for us. It made real the loss and the horror of war. We saw the rows of neatly laid graves and symmetrical gravestones, which are honoured and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which Edward Mountain mentioned earlier and for which I, too, give thanks. We saw the stories of doomed youth inscribed in stone, with name, rank and service number, and a short personal inscription provided by a grieving family.

Those trips are so important. We must ensure that, whatever financial constraints we are required to endure, those trips continue. Learning those lessons is best accomplished by the incomparable experience of visiting them, and not just by reading about them in a textbook. Our young people must learn about the very full part that Scotland played, but the battle of St Valery and operation Cycle are not part of the national 5 second world war curriculum. I hope that the cabinet secretary would agree that that anomaly should be corrected.

We must continue to ensure that remembrance is fully inclusive of our young people. For many years, we have attended, alongside the cabinet secretary, the act of remembrance at the war memorial in our village. I have been moved by the sight of the pupils from the local high school and primary school laying wreaths, alongside representatives of the scouts, the cubs, the Boys Brigade, the girl guides, the sea cadets, the army cadets and the air training corps.

Remembrance has taken on even more meaning for our family as we have learned more about great-uncles who were killed in action in France. That has made remembrance more personal and the sacrifice and loss more poignant. We have taken time to tell our grandchildren, as they get old enough, what remembrance means in their family history. I keenly sense that it is our responsibility to see that remembrance is renewed and continued, to pass on the lessons and warnings of history, and to teach children what it means to wear a poppy each November and to see it as a symbol of hope, renewal, sacrifice and peace. If we fail to remember and to help our children and grandchildren remember, the hope for a peaceful future will soon be lost, as it was before.

I remind members that we are tight for time, and that you need to stick to your time allocations.

16:09  

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

It hardly seems like a year since many of us attended our local remembrance Sunday events as newly elected constituency and regional MSPs to remember our armed services personnel. Who would have thought that, as we entered this year’s national period of remembrance, we would be watching the unfolding illegal invasion of Ukraine?

Reading the daily intelligence updates from the MOD has become part of my routine: narrative and images of the devastation caused, the humanitarian effort and the absolute resolve of the Ukrainian population to win back their territory. At this time of year, the daily updates appear against the backdrop of remembrance, when we pay tribute to the ultimate sacrifice of those individuals from Scotland, the UK, the Commonwealth and allied nations who gave their lives in order to ensure the freedom and peace that we enjoy today.

The imagery captured on social media is a far cry from the photos that I expect many of us have tucked away of family members who saw active service in conflict or in peacekeeping roles across the world—photos like the one that I recently found of my Uncle Adam, who endured the claustrophobic environment of a Royal Navy minesweeper during world war two. As my son described him, he seemed to be smiling in the face of fear. It is no surprise that he returned to civilian life traumatised and suffering from what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder, which went unrecognised and untreated for the rest of his life.

Thankfully we are in a very different place today. Many veterans leave our armed forces with a positive experience and highly transferable skills. However, many experience a more difficult return to civilian life, and the work of veterans charities in Scotland—Erskine, Poppyscotland, Veterans Scotland and many others—is key to ensuring that there is practical support and help in the right place, at the right time.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government commitment to charities and other bodies continues. I particularly welcome the establishment of the Scottish Veterans Care Network, to ensure parity of access to specialist services, and the continued funding for Combat Stress, ensuring that support for veterans who are experiencing compromised mental health continues.

Over the years, the north-east has seen a cohort of veterans take their skill sets into the energy sector. However, it can be difficult for them to navigate into the sector. Therefore, I welcome the revamped veterans employability strategic group, which I hope will support employment opportunities for service leavers such as those seeking to move into our growing renewables sector.

I particularly welcome the commitment in the refreshed strategy for our veterans to support and better understand the veteran population coming into the criminal justice system—frequently a highly vulnerable group with enduring and complex needs.

The on-going cost of living crisis is hitting those who are least able to afford increased energy and food bills the hardest. I am very grateful to all the people working and volunteering in my constituency of Aberdeen South and North Kincardine for their work in supporting our veteran community, providing practical and emotional support across a range of projects, initiatives and services. The support that is provided by the Scottish veterans fund will be crucial in ensuring that many of those local projects can continue to provide vital community support to our veterans and their families during this period of uncertainty and worry for many.

To conclude, at this time of remembrance, I offer my deep gratitude to all our military personnel—those lost in conflict, those still serving and those now returned to our communities—for their sacrifice, commitment and selflessness.

I advise members who are going to participate in the debate that I will now be cutting you off at four minutes, so four minutes is not the point at which to say, “and to conclude”.

16:13  

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

The annual act of remembrance is a powerful one. It provides a necessary opportunity to reflect on the crucial moment in our history when the guns stopped firing and peace in Europe was secured. It is also a time to reflect on the fragility of that peace in our world—peace that has often been imperilled, down through the centuries

Of course, in the past year we have been served with a stark reminder of that fragility, with Russia having unleashed a dreadful and bloody campaign of destruction in Ukraine. I am sure that those scenes will not be far from any of our minds as we pause to remember, this coming weekend. Today, I want to take some time to pay tribute to those who support remembrance in communities across West Scotland.

For more than a century, the poppy has served as a poignant symbol of remembrance for all those who have lost their lives on active service, and as an expression of hope for lasting peace. The work that Poppyscotland and so many other charities do makes a real impact on veterans and their families, and is rightly being recognised in our debate today, but none of that work is possible without the support of the people who fundraise in our towns and villages at this time of year and, indeed, throughout the year.

I take this opportunity to pay special tribute to my constituent Kitty Ramsay, who has received the president’s award for her years of fundraising for Poppyscotland. Indeed, it was wonderful to see the Presiding Officer making the presentation in the garden lobby here in Parliament, just a few weeks ago. For decades, Kitty has selflessly organised the sale of poppies in Port Glasgow and across Inverclyde, thereby raising thousands of pounds for Poppyscotland.

It should be noted that the president’s award is an extremely prestigious accolade that is bestowed on individuals for exceptional volunteering services to Poppyscotland. I am sure that all members agree that securing the award is an exceptional achievement, and I am sure that Kitty is very proud to have received it. It was a real pleasure to chat to Kitty and her husband Ronald, along with Jamie Greene—who I see is in the chamber—and other members, and to hear her say that she does it for all the people who never came home from war to the streets of Inverclyde.

As Paul Sweeney said, Scottish Labour strongly supports the work of Poppyscotland. We support implementation of the recommendations of the Poppyscotland manifesto, which calls on the Scottish Government to mainstream the armed forces community in the policy-making process and to properly capture the lived experience of armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. I warmly welcome what the cabinet secretary said in that regard.

I am conscious of the time, Presiding Officer. I want to give another local example of people in West Scotland who support remembrance—an example that is close to my heart. As members will have heard me say before in the chamber, I have been privileged to be involved with the Neilston War Memorial Association since its inception in 2011. The association is made up of local volunteers who have given their time to build a new war memorial in Neilston and now act as the custodians of remembrance in the village.

This week, the Neilston War Memorial Association received the sad news that one of our leading committee members, Keith Fergus, has passed away aged just 49, after a period of illness. Keith worked closely with his friends in the association for more than 10 years—from his involvement in the initial fundraising that helped to build the war memorial, to his becoming our official photographer. During the pandemic, he delivered food packs, Christmas and Easter treats for local children and high teas for the village pensioners. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his wife Helen and his children Kyla and Cammie at this very sad time. Indeed, as we gather this weekend, we will remember Keith’s contribution to remembrance.

As a nation, we should be grateful for the service of all personnel who have given their lives. We should also be grateful for the service of volunteers like Keith and Kitty, whose quiet, determined and dedicated actions keep alive the promise that has echoed down through the years:

“We will remember them.”

16:18  

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate.

I echo Paul O’Kane’s comments about Kitty Ramsay. I have known Kitty for some time; she came to do a crash course in accounts, way back when the Port Glasgow and St Stephen’s high schools had their first joint class, many moons ago.

I am particularly pleased to speak in the debate because I think that people might not always fully appreciate the role of service personnel in peacekeeping missions and assisting during public emergencies such as the recent pandemic. The role of anyone who serves in the armed forces is varied, but that is not always acknowledged outside Parliament.

My Greenock and Inverclyde constituency was traditionally a recruiting area for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I will mention just one Argylls veteran—Jim Boyland, who is also from Port Glasgow. When it comes to ambassadors for the Army, Jim is very much up there. Since his retirement from the Army many years ago, he has helped many hundreds of young people in the community to achieve more in their lives. He has enhanced the life of everyone whom he has met. Not just his personality, but the sense of discipline and belonging that he got from the Army have helped him to do that. He is a credit to himself, to the Argyll and Southern Highlanders Regimental Association and to our community.

I welcome the support that is provided to our armed forces personnel, including through roll-out of the Scottish Government’s veterans’ mental health and wellbeing action plan, but I recognise that there will always be more to do. The Scottish Government will continue to target projects that offer new and innovative approaches to aiding our veterans community.

That is why I hope that dialogue between the two Governments about defence and military commitments will increase, so that Scotland can continue to support the sector during UK Government’s funding decisions. Management and deployment of the armed forces is a reserved matter, but many of the challenges that are faced by veterans come under devolved responsibilities. Improved engagement will provide better outcomes and solutions for veterans, which is surely what everyone in the chamber wants, irrespective of their political persuasion.

When our service personnel return from combat zones and years of service and retire from their roles in the armed forces, they should not then be expected to wage a battle against bureaucracy to obtain the support to which they are rightfully entitled. Engagement is therefore vital as the UK Government outlines how defence capability will be achieved with cuts to personnel numbers, and against a backdrop of concerns being expressed by the UK Parliament about how programmes that are critical to defence of the UK are being funded and delivered.

That call for greater dialogue extends to Scotland’s domestic defence industry, which is vital for Scottish jobs. When the MOD’s £24 billion budget for the next four years was published by UK Government, there were no discussions with the Scottish Government about how decisions might impact on Scotland. Some people would argue that because defence is a reserved matter discussions need not take place. However, the effects of any decisions will clearly be long-term, whatever they are, so dialogue and discussion would certainly be helpful.

This Sunday, I will pay my respects in my constituency, first at Well park and then at the Free French memorial, which are both in Greenock. Those sites, and others in the constituency, saw growing numbers of members of the public coming to pay their respects prior to the pandemic. I hope—in fact, I am sure—that on Sunday the number of people attending the two locations and others in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency will again be on the up, because people genuinely want to pay their respects to those who have fallen and to those who have served their communities.

16:22  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to speak in today’s debate.

“When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
For their tomorrow,
We gave them our today.”

For me, those immortal words sum up the incredible service of the United Kingdom’s armed forces. Today, we stand together in the chamber to thank our service personnel for their exceptional service, while taking a moment to remember those who have paid the ultimate price.

Day in and day out, our armed forces work to keep the British public safe, while supporting our allies further afield. Throughout the past two years, their professionalism and dedication have been clear for all to see. The British Army was instrumental in roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine and played a key role in supporting our NHS staff, thereby allowing us to jab our way to freedom.

During the pandemic more than 100 armed forces personnel were brought in to support the Scottish Ambulance Service in assisting vulnerable people and people facing medical emergencies. Let us also not forget how, more recently, the Royal Regiment of Scotland played an invaluable role in assisting at events surrounding the passing of our late Queen Elizabeth II. The images of our boys carrying the Queen’s coffin up the Royal Mile to St Giles’ cathedral will stay with us forever.

Just as our veterans have faithfully served the British people, the Scottish Government must live up to its responsibility by supporting them to adjust to daily life back home. We want servicemen and women who choose, on leaving the armed forces, to settle in Scotland to know that they and their families will be supported. With around 250,000 veterans in Scotland, we need a comprehensive strategy to support their wellbeing and provide them with opportunities to thrive.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s collaboration with the UK Government to secure a long-term veterans strategy, which has also been welcomed by key stakeholders, including Veterans Scotland. By focusing on key themes, including employability training and financial education, to ensure that our veterans adapt to life back home, the strategy will equip them with vital tools to reintegrate into the communities that they have so faithfully served.

Conservative members would like Scotland’s two Governments to build on that collaborative approach to further strengthen the existing strategy, so we can support our soldiers, because the evidence is clear that, unfortunately, many veterans experience challenges on their return home—not least because they are at higher risk of developing physical and mental health conditions.

The Scottish Conservatives propose an armed forces and veterans bill that would enshrine in law the armed forces covenant for devolved public bodies, including NHS Scotland, in order to equip veterans better with the tools and support that they need in order to transition to civilian life.

No one could doubt the dedication, professionalism and sacrifice of the United Kingdom’s armed forces. They must be supported and, in turn, rewarded. In the chamber today, let us with one voice thank our armed forces for their heroic efforts, and let us commemorate the fallen, whose sacrifices will never be forgotten.

16:25  

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

In my constituency, I have Glencorse barracks. Thankfully, after years of having the threat of closure hanging over it, it has been reprieved. On the visits that I have made there since I started representing Penicuik, I have been made most welcome by both the service personnel and their families.

I also have the honour each year of representing the Parliament as the local MSP at the remembrance service at the memorial in Peebles, as I will on Sunday. It is always very moving. I pay tribute to Fiona Dunlop, a retired Peebles history teacher who voluntarily takes care of more than 150 war graves in more than a dozen cemeteries across the Borders, supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from which she has rightly received an award.

The families of those who serve, including the parents and the partners, often with children, wait anxiously as their loved ones serve in war-torn countries. They hold the home together, unsure when and, sadly, if their loved ones will return. They are the unsung heroes.

I am mindful each 11 November of the war that I just missed—world war two, when my father, with his great pal Jock Hunter from Hawick, enrolled in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and they were to be sent to Arnhem. At the last minute, dad failed the fitness test—he had trouble with his feet, and army boots made it worse—so he was sent to Shetland instead. Jock, like dad, was in his late 20s. He was parachuted into Arnhem and he died there. Such is the randomness of war.

Dad went on to live into his 90s, having five children with his beloved Margie and a marriage that lasted nigh on 60 years, with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That was a life that Jock was never to see. There are many—too many—who lost their futures or suffered life-changing injuries in the ensuing wars.

Sadly, wars continue, with the illegal annexation by Russia of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk and the bombing of Ukrainian cities. The bravery and commitment of the Ukrainian people in and out of uniform is daunting. The war will end, as all wars do, but not until after the brutalities—the war crimes, the deaths, the devastation of the land, the bomb-torn landscapes and the unburied.

I wear the red and the white poppies—the red is the poppy of remembrance and the white is the poppy of peace—because, when politicians fail or despots and dictators rule the airwaves, it is the armed services and not the politicians whose lives are put on the line. Within the ranks of Russian conscripts, there are young men who do not wish to spend their youth on bullets and bombs in Ukraine. Brave Russian people who speak out risk their lives, and we must pay tribute to and remember them as we remember the fallen and the damaged of all wars.

16:28  

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this timely debate. I thank the cabinet secretary for coming to the chamber to report on the work that he has done and I pay tribute on the record to all who have lost their lives or suffered as a result of their service.

Like others, I have family members who have taken part in conflict and died. I also have family members who have campaigned against war. We must always remember that it is politicians who send our armed forces into conflict, and often it is politicians who let them down. As a society, we often fail to meet the duty of care that we owe to veterans.

When I asked veterans what issues they felt the debate needed to focus on, they highlighted the impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic has had, and that the cost of living crisis is having, on many veterans who are struggling. They mentioned issues around care homes and the impacts that rising costs there are having on veterans.

In the past, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on armed forces veterans’ pensions in the House of Commons, I campaigned with veterans for those who had served in the military before 1974. Despite campaigning for many decades, those veterans have still not been awarded an Army pension. That issue and others, such as the need for a triple lock, are obviously reserved matters but, as has already been said, this Parliament has responsibility for many of the issues that impact on veterans’ lives now.

We must recognise that gaps remain in the specialist support that veterans need, whether for their physical health or for their mental health. Support is often not available locally or is not structured in a way that meets veterans’ needs. Many of us have personal experience of witnessing the system failing former members of the armed services, whether those individuals have come back from the Falklands, the Gulf war or more recent conflicts.

We recognise that progress has been made to address veterans’ social and housing needs, and I welcomed the cabinet secretary’s announcement regarding the housing application process, but we know that many people still leave the armed forces and become homeless. The most recent figures show a 24 per cent increase in the number of people registering as homeless after leaving armed forces accommodation between 2020-21 and 2021-22.

In 2020, Poppyscotland, together with the Royal British Legion, published a research report entitled “Making the benefits system fit for Service”. It detailed how the benefits system often fails people who are leaving service. Poppyscotland has called for the establishment of a veterans housing action group, with powers to review challenging cases, to oversee the effective implementation of the veterans housing pathway and to act on the recommendations that it makes.

The Parliament needs to recognise that we have failed our veterans in the past. I am pleased with the way in which the debate has been conducted. It is right that we honour those who have fallen, but we must also remember that, too often, we have failed those who have come home, those who have been left behind—including families—and those who have suffered life-altering injuries. I am pleased to support the motion.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jackie Dunbar, who is the final speaker in the open debate. After her speech, we will move to closing speeches, and everybody who has taken part in the debate will be expected to be in the chamber.

16:33  

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

It is a privilege to speak in the debate and to pay respect to and commemorate all those who have given so much to preserve the freedoms that we all enjoy today.

On Sunday, people will gather to remember. Some will remember family members who died in two world wars; others will remember those who have died in numerous conflicts since; and some will wish to reflect on their own service and those who served with them.

Importantly, however—and I agree with Poppyscotland on this—remembrance Sunday is also an opportunity to educate younger generations on the atrocities of the past to ensure that history is not repeated. Last year, as a Gordon’s bairn, I spent my time in the debate reflecting on my ain family’s connections to the Gordon Highlanders. This year, I want to pay tribute to our armed forces and to highlight organisations and folk across my constituency who are working to support our veterans community.

As a former councillor on Aberdeen City Council, I was proud to play my part in ensuring that the council signed up to the armed forces covenant, for which the council now has a gold award.

The armed forces covenant is based on the premise that those who serve or have served, and their families, deserve respect, support and fair treatment. It stipulates that the local authority will, among other commitments: offer up to 1 per cent of its 2,000 new council houses to those who leave the armed forces and adapt up to a further 0.5 per cent for those who are injured in service; support the employment of veterans and work with the Career Transition Partnership to establish a tailored employment pathway; and ensure that armed forces personnel are not disadvantaged when it comes to school places for their bairns.

The covenant has proven to be hugely important for Scotland’s veterans and the armed forces community. I pay tribute to all at Aberdeen City Council for supporting it, and I encourage all other local authorities to take part if they have not already done so. The mental health and wellbeing of our veterans community is paramount and I welcome that the Scottish Government has allocated over £2 million in funding to support veterans charities.

I pay tribute to Kate Dean of Aberdeen citizens advice bureau, who has led the armed services advice project in Aberdeen. The project provides targeted support on access to welfare, employment opportunities, debt and finances and housing. Between November 2021 and today, in Aberdeen alone, ASAP has helped 119 veterans, with yearly financial gains totalling £13,000 each year. That can really help. The case studies, which are available on the CAB’s website—I encourage members to take a look—speak for themselves. The project has been made possible partly through funding from the Scottish Government. I welcome the commitment that the cabinet secretary made earlier, and I hope that such support will continue into the future.

Throughout wars and crises, we have relied on the selflessness of our armed forces to protect our freedoms and keep us safe from harm. To do their duty, our servicemen and women have been deployed around the world, wherever and whenever they have been needed. In recent years, our troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and to support humanitarian efforts in countries around the globe. The global contribution of our servicemen and women must be acknowledged.

I look forward to laying a wreath in Aberdeen this Sunday on behalf of the good folk of Aberdeen Donside, and I encourage aabodie to get their poppies out, wear them wi pride and support our service personnel, past and present.

16:37  

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It really is a pleasure to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. I echo Graeme Dey’s comment—the debate has shown very well what this Parliament can do when we come together across the different benches on a subject that is as important as our veterans, our current serving armed forces personnel and the families who surround them.

It is true to say that Scottish Labour remains of the fundamental belief that those who have sacrificed the most for our country deserve the very best possible care. I welcome the new Scottish veterans commissioner, who started work in August, to her post. I wish her well in championing our veterans and their families, and I look forward to receiving and reading her reports in due course.

This has been a special debate. Members have talked about very personal remembrances and experiences and about wider experiences that bring us together across the chamber. I welcome Keith Brown’s comments about data on armed forces children. It would be remiss of me not to return to the subject of those children later in my speech.

However, I start by thanking Edward Mountain for his comments. He reminded us that, when push comes to shove, our armed forces around the world stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, and they deserve that level of respect while they are serving. They are sent to serve so frequently by politicians, who have—I might add—perhaps failed when we end up at war. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with our armed forces personnel both during their service and afterwards. Alex Cole-Hamilton rightly reminded us that those who do not learn from history pay the price of going over the same ground again and again.

As Stephen Kerr and others mentioned, this year is different in that Her Majesty has passed. For many of us, one of the solid symbols of remembrance has been Her Majesty standing there on every 11 November and remembrance Sunday. It is a solid image whose first instance perhaps predates many of us in the chamber, and it will be missed. However, I am sure that we will see, in our new King, a similar steadfast support at this time of year.

Audrey Nicoll, among many other members, rightly talked about the illegal war that is going on in Ukraine. This Sunday, we will probably awaken to pictures, film and reports from Ukraine, and then, at 11 o’clock, we will go out to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Paul O’Kane reminded us what a poignant symbol the poppy is and about the work of Poppyscotland. I echo the chamber’s thanks to Poppyscotland and the other veterans charities for their work in helping our veterans and serving personnel.

Stuart McMillan mentioned the importance of peacekeeping, because service is not always about war, and service personnel and veterans have done so much by sometimes bravely standing between two groups that would go to war.

With Fiona Dunlop, Christine Grahame put a face to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The work that is done to support the graves of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice is such a silent, quiet way to show respect. As Edward Mountain said, it also sometimes takes place under challenging circumstances. When I take school pupils to Commonwealth war graves, it always results in a moment of silence, as does visiting the battlefields in France. It gives young people a bit of real-life education that resonates more than what they have heard, read and seen, sometimes even on social media.

I promised to return to our young people, and I will do so by highlighting the Scottish Funding Council’s work, along with the Service Children’s Progression Alliance, to launch an online platform, the thriving lives toolkit, in April this year. The toolkit, which is underpinned by rigorous research, aims to bring about better understanding in schools and reach out to our service personnel and young people about their experiences. I also highlight the work that Forces Children Scotland did with Edinburgh Napier University to promote the educational opportunities that are open to our service children.

My home town of Prestonpans, in East Lothian, South Scotland, has, without doubt, one of the finest war memorials anywhere in the world. It was designed by the eminent sculptor William Birnie Rhind, whom most people will probably know for the doorway to the Scottish national portrait gallery. It was on Sunday 30 April 1922, just over 100 years ago, that an 8-foot high soldier, dressed in the garb of the eighth battalion of the Royal Scots, first stood on top of a pedestal and looked across our high street. The community, through its community council and East Lothian Council, have done a great deal to improve the sculpture and reopen it for this November.

My final words go to Lieutenant General Sir Francis Davies, who, 100 years ago, asked the locals in Prestonpans to

“give one thought to the brave boys and recall what they did for them and their country. Those who had come through the war were not likely to forget their experience. It is not for their benefit that the monument has been erected. It is for the generations yet to come”.

They are the monuments that speak to us this Sunday.

16:43  

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Remembrance is not just a word; it is a profound act of admiration, respect and gratitude. Keith Brown spoke about ensuring that veterans and their families face no disadvantage and about the work that is being done collaboratively with the public, private and third sectors as part of the Scottish Government’s veterans strategy action plan. There is undoubtedly more that we can do, but progress is being made.

The cabinet secretary welcomed Susie Hamilton to her role as the Scottish veterans commissioner. I echo that welcome, as did Martin Whitfield.

Ed Mountain shared his personal experiences and sacrifices, and he highlighted the contribution of veterans in service to their country. He also highlighted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains graves in 23,000 locations around the world.

Ed Mountain paid tribute to the Ukrainians, as did members across the chamber. Points were made by Audrey Nicoll, Christine Grahame and Alex Cole-Hamilton, who highlighted the suffering and carnage that are being faced, as well as paying a moving tribute to his uncle.

Paul Sweeney gave us an example of the poignant personal loss that, sadly, too many service personnel are forced to endure. My uncle served as a padre, and in that role he conducted many funerals of service personnel who were taken far too soon.

Graeme Dey said that we need to do the best for current and former military personnel. Stephen Kerr highlighted the fact that the armed forces are defending our democracy, freedom and rule of law, and he said that “remembrance is renewed and continued” in order to achieve a peaceful future. Similar tributes were paid by Paul O’Kane, Stuart McMillan, Katy Clark and Jackie Dunbar.

We have admiration for the men and women who risk their lives to ensure our safety and freedom, respect for their bravery and professionalism, and gratitude for the sacrifices that they make on our behalf. Of course, we think of their distinguished service in conflicts such as the second world war or the Falklands, but our armed forces contribute beyond the battlefield, too. During the dark days of the pandemic, we saw the British Army deployed to help Scotland through the crisis. More than 200 troops helped with the vaccine roll-out, and more than 100 more drove ambulances, as Annie Wells said.

Our armed forces play a central role in Scottish public life. It was the soldiers of the Royal Regiment of Scotland who stepped forth to carry Her late Majesty’s coffin as it arrived in Edinburgh, then on to St Giles’ cathedral for the vigil. Their professionalism was an impressive sight on news broadcasts around the world.

The men and women of our armed forces give us so much, and we must make sure that those who settle in Scotland after their service are settling in a country that does not just call them heroes but treats them as such. Scotland should strive to offer them and their families the most generous support of anywhere in the UK.

There are around 250,000 veterans in Scotland, which is around 5 per cent of our population. The chances are that we will all know someone who served, and, if we do, we also know that veterans, sadly, often face many challenges. Homelessness is a major one. Almost 700 veterans were assessed as being homeless in 2020-21, according to Scottish Government figures. That is only the high-level statistic. If we dig in, we see that the problem is actually much worse. We know, from Homeless Network Scotland, that veterans who are affected by homelessness are likely to experience rough sleeping and that homelessness can occur many years after discharge, due to veterans being reluctant to seek help or due to deferred trauma. All of that is before we consider how difficult it can be for service personnel who are moving around the world to buy or rent a home at the end of their career.

Veterans also face significant health problems. I recently chaired a meeting of the cross-party group on armed forces and veterans community that looked at that issue. The report “Trends in Scottish Veterans’ Health” found that, compared to non-veterans, veterans have a 15 per cent increased risk of heart attack, a 16 per cent increased risk of stroke and an 18 per cent increased risk of lung cancer. That is the physical side. The situation is even worse when we look at mental health. Compared with non-veterans, veterans have a 24 per cent increased risk of being diagnosed with a major mental health issue. Those numbers are incredibly grim and demand action.

I am pleased that the UK Government and the Scottish Government have jointly developed a plan, the strategy for our veterans, to address the major issues that veterans face, such as poor health, unemployment, financial problems and debt. It is a 10-year plan that will run to 2028. That is important because it means that there is an opportunity not only to address immediate challenges, but to develop methods of supporting a new generation of veterans.

There is more to do, though, and the Scottish Parliament has the power to do it. That is why the Scottish Conservatives are calling for an armed forces and veterans bill to enshrine in law the armed forces covenant for public bodies such as the NHS and local authorities. We also want to see a help-to-buy scheme specifically for veterans, along with a new top-up benefit for veterans.

On remembrance day, let us give thanks for those who have served and sacrificed for us and let us make sure that those who continue to serve and sacrifice are given the support and respect that they deserve.

I call Keith Brown to respond to the debate. You have nine minutes, minister.

16:50  

Keith Brown

I will try to get through as much as I can. I want to refer to several members’ speeches, although I will not have time to refer to everyone’s.

First, I thank Edward Mountain for his very gracious speech. In particular, I pick out his reference to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This year, I had the chance to visit its headquarters in France to see what it does. The CWGC is still finding remains in France and I had privileged access to see where it takes them, along with other artefacts that are found, such as letters from loved ones. The CWGC does a fantastic job and it is a testament to its work that many countries around the world look to its example to see whether they can deliver a similar service—although hopefully we will never again have that volume of graves to look after.

Paul Sweeney mentioned the Poppyscotland manifesto. I will not go through it line by line, but I will say that I have different figures from some of those that have been raised in relation to its recommendations. There is a danger in overemphasising the levels of homelessness, imprisonment and ill health beyond what they really are. For example, currently, about 2 per cent of all households assessed as homeless have a member who was formerly in the armed forces—that is lower than the rate for the general population. It is important that we have an accurate picture. I will come back to Maurice Golden’s points on that shortly.

I was going to say something about the fact that my summing-up speech will be more about remembrance than veterans. I am happy to admit that there may be a lesson there: perhaps we should split those two things in future. It might be that some people are a bit inhibited from having a go at the Government on veterans issues because the debate is tied in with remembrance. That should not be the case. Maurice Golden made some trenchant comments about the Scottish Government’s performance. I welcome that—it is the way to improve things. Perhaps we should learn that lesson for next year.

On remembrance, Edward Mountain said that he was the third generation of his family to serve in the armed forces, and his son was the fourth. I have not done this before, but I will speak about my family. I was named Keith James Brown after my grandfather, James Brown, who was called up to the Black Watch in the first world war for a short time—he was only 18. His children included my Uncle James, who served with the Royal Navy; my Aunt Mary, who served with the Army; my father, Atholl Brown, who did his national service in the Army; and my Uncle Douglas, who did his national service in the very difficult environment of Malta. My Uncle Robert died last week. His funeral was this afternoon and I was unable to attend it because of the debate. He served in the Royal Navy for nine years. Realising the impact that service had on previous generations is salutary.

Stephen Kerr made an important point. From 2014 to 2018, the Scottish Government had a scheme to allow pupils from every school in Scotland to attend a battlefield. I find that young people are more affected by that than some older people are. If pupils have studied the battle beforehand and study some of the graves, it has a profound effect when they see that some of the people who died are about 17 years old—the same age as them. I wonder whether we will keep remembrance at the same level. I am not criticising any member, but the debate is not the best attended and there is no one in the gallery, even though the debate started eight minutes late. We all have a job in hand to ensure that we continue to remember. I agree with Stephen Kerr about the need to remember.

Graeme Dey made some important points about universal credit; it cannot be right to expect armed forces personnel to be on universal credit, especially in the numbers that he described.

I disagree with a number of the points that Annie Wells made about how we look after veterans in this country. Remember that we do not get funding for any veterans activity; we were the first country in the UK to have a veterans commissioner and the first to have a veterans fund. We have been the first to do many things that have been copied by other parts of the UK. I accept that we are subject to challenging criticism, but we do a very good job, although we can continue to improve.

It might have been Katy Clark who said that many people who served before 1974 did not get a pension. Well, there are those of us who served after 1974 who did not get a pension, so that has not been resolved. Some of the work of the veterans organisation at the UK level on pensions and compensation is atrocious, and that has to be improved.

There is much that we agree on, and at this time of year it is important that we reflect on the importance of remembrance as well as highlighting the key events that have taken place this year. We remember the sacrifices that have been made by the armed services community, not, as Christine Grahame said, because we want to seek to glorify war, but to recognise the hardships endured and the courage displayed in the face of adversity.

While we reflect on the impact of war on Scotland, we must remember the suffering of families at home who face the uncertainty of the future and of what will become of their loved ones serving overseas. The remembrance period also plays a vital role in raising awareness of past conflicts, as we have mentioned, among those who were too young to remember them.

It is extraordinary to think that the Falkland Islands conflict is now further away from us today than the second world war was when we served in the Falklands. This year was the 40th anniversary of the war, and I was delighted to attend various events to pay tribute to the bravery and commitment of those involved.

In June, I was pleased that the Government, working in partnership with Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland, was able to deliver a national event in Edinburgh commemorating the anniversary of the conflict, and I had the opportunity to lay a wreath and deliver a reading in St Andrew Square. Jackson Carlaw also attended that day, as I recall. The event provided an opportunity for reflection and to remember all those who lost their lives in the conflict.

Those events highlight the strong cultural link between Scotland and the Falkland Islands community. A number of members attended events in the Parliament where that was highlighted. I am honoured to have been invited by the Falkland Islands Government to visit later this week and participate in a series of commemorative events that will provide an opportunity to pay tribute to the heroism of the courageous men and women who made up the task force and set sail to free the islands, and to hear from veterans of the Falklands and members of the armed forces who currently serve there. I very much look forward to that.

As has been mentioned by a number of members, many of our veterans still bear physical and mental scars from conflict, and it is important that we remain committed to supporting the battles that they still face. In July of this year, I went to the McCrae’s Battalion Trust at the Contalmaison cairn in northern France to mark the anniversary of the first day of the battle of the Somme and lay a wreath on behalf of the people of Scotland.

Many lost their lives that day, and I remember standing beside the memorial there and thinking back to sitting there in 2016—the 100th anniversary of the battle—and seeing coachloads of Scottish children stopping to visit. It has almost become recognised as a Scottish memorial, and is important for the reasons that we have mentioned. Alongside the mayor of Contalmaison and representatives of the French military, it was a valuable opportunity to pay tribute to those who lost their lives or were otherwise impacted by the war. I was particularly heartened at the bravery of the Scots who fought alongside the French over the centuries, and who will now be forever memorialised by a commemorative plaque at Les Invalides—I am probably pronouncing that wrong—which is one of France’s most important military history sites.

Remembrance day is a time for reflection, and there should always be time in that to reflect on the experiences of underrepresented groups in the armed forces community. I mentioned earlier that I had the privilege of meeting Fighting With Pride, which is a charity that supports LGBT+ veterans, service personnel and their families and works with organisations that support veterans. It is important that, in remembering the bravery and commitment of those who have served and lost their lives in conflict, we acknowledge the additional struggles that some veterans faced.

The work of Fighting With Pride and the whole charitable sector in providing valuable support to veterans and their families throughout Scotland is crucial to the armed forces community. The way they were treated was appalling, and recompense has to be given to those who suffered. They were thrown out, investigated and sometimes imprisoned because of their sexuality when they left the armed forces. I thank everyone who supports those charities in whatever way they can.

As we have heard, the remembrance period serves a vital purpose, and there is a remarkable degree of unanimity and consensus in the chamber on the issue. The remembrance period allows everyone in Scotland a moment to pause, as it will do during events in the course of this week, and to be thankful to those who served.

At the start of the debate, Edward Mountain mentioned the contract. That is probably not understood by many people who are not in the armed forces. If a person signs up, they sign up to put their life on the line. I hope that that will not happen, but there is, of course, always the possibility that it will. I recognise Edward Mountain’s service, too. That is the contract. If a person signs up to that contract, surely the contract that we sign up to is to ensure that they are looked after when they have finished their service or are remembered if they die in service.

Finally, all this is not to glorify war—the motion makes that clear—but to recognise the sacrifices made to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today.