Meeting date: Thursday, November 11, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 November 2021 [Draft]
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Glasgow Climate Dialogues Communiqué, Portfolio Question Time, Veterans and Armed Forces Community (Remembrance and Support), Motion without Notice, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Glasgow Climate Dialogues Communiqué
- Portfolio Question Time
- Veterans and Armed Forces Community (Remembrance and Support)
- Motion without Notice
- Decision Time
Veterans and Armed Forces Community (Remembrance and Support)
The next item of business is a debate without motion on the subject of remembrance commemorations and the “Scottish Government Support for the Veterans and Armed Forces Community 2021” report. I invite any members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or put an R in the chat function if they are joining us online.14:56
I am delighted to present to the Parliament the Scottish Government’s fifth annual update on support for the veterans and armed forces community.
Since 2017, we have committed to returning to the chamber annually to update members, to showcase the work that we are doing to improve support and ensure that our veterans face no disadvantage as a result of their service, and to show that Scotland is the destination of choice for our service leavers and their families. First, however, I would like to thank my predecessor, Graeme Dey, and acknowledge the excellent progress that he made in his time as veterans minister.
I welcome the opportunity to deliver our update this year and provide the chamber with detail on the work that is being undertaken. This week, we published “Scottish Government Support for the Veterans and Armed Forces Community 2021”, which details the work that we have undertaken over the past 12 months, including the actions that we have taken on the commitments that we made as part of our response to the veterans strategy.
Despite the numerous challenges that we have all recently faced, we have achieved a great deal in those 12 months and, as always, that has been made possible only because we have worked collaboratively and productively with partners and the public, private and third sectors. Almost two years ago, we published a response to the veterans strategy that detailed how we intended to deliver our commitments through to 2028. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, I believe that it would be prudent to take stock and to take the opportunity to review our commitments. I can confirm that, in 2022, we will be refreshing our strategy response and looking at the extent to which existing commitments remain valid and where there may be opportunities to add more detail to existing elements, or, indeed, add new ones.
As always, I am grateful to all our partners across all sectors who continue to work with us to improve the lives of veterans and armed forces families. I also acknowledge and recognise the support of our armed forces in providing military aid to civilian authorities in Scotland throughout the past year.
Members will certainly be aware of the acute challenges that the charitable sector has faced over the past 12 months and of the impact of the pandemic on their ability to conduct fundraising activities. Across the United Kingdom, estimates suggest that there might be a shortfall of £250 million in fundraising compared to a normal year. To counter that in Scotland, in June, I launched the armed forces third sector resilience fund, which is providing almost £800,000 in direct financial relief to the 19 third sector organisations that provide support to the armed forces community in Scotland.
One event that has affected veterans across the UK is the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I can report that providers of mental wellbeing services for veterans in Scotland received a significant increase in demand for support from veterans and family members who are concerned about their loved ones. We continue to engage with charities and service providers to monitor the position to ensure that we can provide support to our veterans.
The Scottish Veterans Care Network has undertaken a national review of existing mental health and wellbeing services for veterans across Scotland. A veterans’ mental health action plan, which will highlight needs and identify future priorities, will be produced in December of this year. That completed plan will aim to support veterans in Scotland to live a healthy life and reach their full potential.
I am aware of the UK Government’s work to improve support for veterans’ mental health, some of which is in light of the impact on veterans of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, I must be clear that the Scottish Government does not receive any additional funding from the UK Government to support veterans. All the veterans work that we do and have done over a decade and more is funded from Scottish budgets. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government has continued to fund both Combat Stress and Veterans First Point. In July of this year, I was thrilled to open a new facility for Veterans First Point in Fife, where I saw at first hand the value of the work that it does.
For my part, I remain committed to improving access to healthcare for the veterans and armed forces community. The armed forces personnel and veterans’ health joint group is a key part of improving access to healthcare. It will continue to prioritise mental health, the employment of veterans in the national health service, priority treatment and the addition of veteran-aware general practitioner accreditation.
I have mentioned the importance of collaborative work when addressing the needs of our veterans, and nowhere is that more apparent than in relation to the unforgotten forces consortium. This year, the Scottish Government contributed a further £250,000 to the consortium to assist it in its vital work in improving the health, wellbeing and quality of life of older veterans in Scotland. In 2021, the consortium expanded the targeting of its support to include all veterans over the age of 60 instead of 65, as it was previously. That will ensure that support is available to even more of Scotland’s veterans.
The challenges facing our veterans are also experienced by their families, and members will hear me make regular reference to the importance that I place on supporting families and all service personnel. This year, we have updated our welcome to Scotland guide to ensures that we present the most up-to-date and relevant information for personnel and their families ahead of relocation in Scotland. We are also working to tackle the difficulties facing our service families in accessing further and higher education. The partners of service personnel can often have difficulty finding employment, due to the impact of service life through things such as mobility and separation. The Scottish Government continues to work with Forces Families Jobs to post vacancies by directing to Work for Scotland, which is our jobs website. I recently visited facilities in Faslane that are designed specifically to support the spouses of service families to gain employment.
Members may have heard previously about the going forward into employment scheme, which aims to help veterans into employment in the civil service. That programme helps to overcome potential barriers to employment, providing life chances by offering meaningful employment opportunities. I am pleased to report that we can now offer roles to spouses and partners of serving armed forces and ex-service personnel. We will look to increase the number of those roles offered within the Scottish Government in 2022, and we are working with partners to further embed the scheme into our recruitment practices.
Also in relation to employment, the veterans employability strategic group has developed an action plan, giving the group a clear focus on enabling service leavers and veterans to access, sustain and progress in good jobs. That last point is very important because for long enough—certainly in the early years when I was involved in veterans activity—the emphasis was very much on getting veterans jobs. However, they are of course entitled to have jobs that are commensurate with their experience and the skills that they have gained while in the armed forces, not just any job. Sometimes, those skills and that experience are invaluable to potential employers. Through new members, private sector employers are now well represented on the group. Furthermore, next year, the Scottish Government will deliver a public awareness campaign targeting employers and the business community to help increase employment opportunities for veterans.
This year, we have also seen further reports from the Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace. Late last year, Charlie published a new report on employability, skills and learning and, in the summer, he produced an additional report on housing, both of which were in the context of transition from military to civilian life. We accepted all the recommendations in the reports and we have outlined to the commissioner how we intend to take them forward. It was welcome that, for the first time, the Scottish veterans commissioner made recommendations to the UK Government; that was crucial, given the reserved nature of the transition process for service personnel.
Addressing those recommendations is a key priority for us, and I believe that it is hugely important. A key strand of the work on housing will be a pathway to prevent homelessness for veterans, which is currently being developed by members of the Veterans Scotland housing group and will be published by the end of 2021.
I am also very pleased that Charlie Wallace gave us the opportunity to contribute to his 2021 progress report, in which he assessed the extent to which we have continued to deliver against his predecessor’s recommendations. The commissioner plays an important role in holding the Government to account. I am delighted that we have continued to make progress, and we will keep working with partners to prioritise the delivery of the outstanding recommendations.
That progress report is the final update to Parliament during Charlie Wallace’s tenure. I am grateful to him for all that he has done on behalf of Scotland’s service personnel, their veterans and their families, and I wish him all the best for the future. [Applause.]
In my view, it is vital—or, at least, fitting—that we hold this debate on armistice day; first, because it brings into sharp focus why we must never forget the sacrifices of our armed forces and the importance of giving them our full support; and, secondly, because this year marks some truly significant anniversaries, including the centenary year of the Royal British Legion and Legion Scotland and the iconic poppy appeal for Poppyscotland.
The critical role of our veterans charities cannot be overestimated and the vital support that they continue to provide to our veterans and their families across Scotland should always be recognised. It is excellent news that, this year, we will be able to gather in celebration for a special concert to mark the centenary, particularly because, last year, we were prevented from doing so for the anniversaries of victory in Europe and victory over Japan.
I will speak more about remembrance in my closing remarks, but we must recognise that remembrance is a hollow gesture if we do not provide the best possible support to our veterans.
Our veterans and service families contribute a huge amount to our society across Scotland and, of course, they continue to provide a huge contribution after they have left the service, if we make sure that they have the opportunity to do so. I believe that we can make Scotland the destination of choice for our service leavers. I am conscious that some of the many service personnel who have been drafted to Scotland have come—if we are honest—with trepidation, because, to an extent, it is an unknown territory for them. However, once they have come here, they have wanted to stay for many years, along with their families. We have to enhance that offer and experience so that we tap into the potential of our veterans once they leave the service. Therefore, we must remain committed to providing the best support for the entire veterans and armed forces community.
I look forward to members’ contributions and to responding to them when I sum up the debate for the Government.
Thank you. Members might wish to be aware that we have time in hand for interventions.15:08
I remind members that I am the third generation of my family to have served in the forces, and my son continues to serve today.
I am delighted to open the debate on behalf of the Conservative Party. Remembrance commemorations are so important to the history of this country and to the Commonwealth, because they are our chance to remember the sacrifices that were made to ensure our future, the future of world democracy and, importantly, the future of Europe.
On Sunday, people will gather to remember, and the way that they do that will be personal. Some will remember family members who died in two world wars; others will remember those who have died since; and some will wish to reflect on their service and those who served with them. However, the commonality of purpose is to pause, reach out and appreciate and acknowledge all that has been given to secure our future.
At this time of year, I always reflect on the price that has been paid to protect our freedom; it is a high price and, sometimes, the ultimate price. We should never forget that every serviceman and woman who serves our country makes an unconditional offer when they take the oath of allegiance—one that we, perhaps, do not fully appreciate.
That offer is an unlimited commitment that binds them to defend their country. It is an oath without limit. It is all or nothing, and if the ultimate sacrifice is required, that is part of the deal. They know that, and perhaps we do, too.
That ultimate sacrifice has been made by so many. Over a million British soldiers were killed in two world wars, and numerous conflicts since have claimed the lives of this country’s sons and daughters. The price that they have paid is also reflected in the price that their families have had to pay. As we sleep safely in our beds, knowing that our servicemen and women are watching our backs, we probably give scant thought to the families who are supporting those who are on the front line. For them, every telephone call and every strange car that stops outside their house could bring bad news. Their lives are not normal, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude, too. If they have to face the loss of their loved ones, we know that their lives will never be the same. Burying a son or a daughter is not something that any parent should ever have to do. Those huge costs are the ones that we have to pay for peace and for the protection of our country and our way of life. It is right that we always pause to reflect on what is given by others for our today and our tomorrow.
Our servicemen and women are prepared to give their all for us, so we should do the same for them. That is why I welcome 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. That shared commitment makes a real difference. I am encouraged that our armed forces charities are due to receive £5 million from the UK Government and £1 million from the Scottish Government this year.
There is so much to commend in the latest report from the Scottish veterans commissioner—I agree with Keith Brown on that. Good progress is being made when it comes to health and wellbeing, whether that is improving access to chronic pain treatment or creating veteran-friendly general practitioner services. I also look forward to the publication of the long-awaited mental health plan for veterans. However, other areas of the strategy need more urgent attention. The veterans commissioner has identified that progress is still lacking when it comes to supporting veterans in new careers. That is a cause for concern. Let me be clear: former armed services personnel are such an asset to their employers. They have so much to offer businesses, public services and charities across the United Kingdom. I will be pressing the Scottish Government to do all that it can to ensure that veterans are given the opportunities that they need to fulfil their undoubted potential.
There is much more that we can do in Parliament, too. That is why the Scottish Conservatives will introduce an armed forces and veterans bill this session. It will propose enshrining the armed forces covenant in law for devolved public bodies, such as the national health service, and introduce provisions to increase the support that is available for veterans and their families. We believe that what the bill proposes will improve transitions from military to civilian life by enhancing access to education, healthcare, housing and career opportunities. Such legislation would underline our unwavering commitment to support veterans and their families.
That never-ending commitment is something that I believe we should strive for, and I believe that it is reflected by another organisation that works so hard during the course of the year—the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The commission works tirelessly to ensure the immaculate upkeep of the graves that honour the sacrifices that were made for us. Its work never stops. On a daily basis, it ensures that the graves are maintained. I take a moment to encourage people to contact the commission if they ever find a grave that is in less than perfect condition. It is very responsive—as I have found out—and it will be diligent in its duty of care.
This Sunday, at 11 o’clock, the nation will fall silent as we remember those who gave their all for the freedoms that we cherish. Unlike last year, this year remembrance services will be taking place across the country. I say to everyone, on Sunday, please visit your local war memorials and stand together with all those who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice in memory of those who did.15:14
It is an honour to be here to mark armistice day and to place on record my thanks to the people who have proudly served our country and those who, over the years, have made the ultimate sacrifice. As someone who has been a member of the Army reserves for more than a decade, I know the sacrifices that members of our armed forces make. We owe a debt of gratitude to them. It is a vocation that requires them to sacrifice spending time with family and friends and isolates them from everyday civilian life, yet time and again they continue to be the very best of our country.
This year, it feels apt to mention the work of service personnel at home, as well as abroad. They have been a key part of our Covid pandemic response. More than 100 personnel are currently deployed at mobile testing units across Scotland, and at one point 95 per cent of all testing facilities were being run by the Army. They were recently asked to help with the ambulance crisis in a number of Scottish health boards and last month approximately 200 servicemen and women helped to deliver petrol to garages across the country in an attempt to ease the fuel crisis.
Despite their personal sacrifice, they are often forgotten when they return from duty or leave the armed forces entirely. Those individuals are highly susceptible to experiencing mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol-related problems and, in many cases, homelessness. We often think of remembrance in the context of a century ago, but more than 100,000 people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades.
Remembrance is not about veterans of the world war two generation in isolation, but about people in my peer group—people in their 30s and 40s—who served in those theatres of conflict and have suffered terribly as a result of losing their friends. I think about some of the friends I lost in Afghanistan, far too young, and I recognise the trauma that that can cause for the people who are left behind. Yet, even though we know that to be the case, the support is not sufficient to alleviate those issues.
That plight has been exacerbated by the Covid restrictions and the recent calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Help for Heroes, appeals for help rose sharply during the pandemic lockdowns and the mental health charity Combat Stress has experienced an increase of more than 50 per cent in its correspondence since the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan. Those mental health issues often lead to a reliance or dependence on alcohol and, to a lesser extent, drugs. A report published last year by the Forces in Mind Trust detailed the impact that alcohol and drug abuse can have on veterans and their families.
The research suggests that alcohol is the primary substance-misuse problem for veterans, with many developing a reliance during their service. One veteran described the drinking culture in the armed forces as a way of life. Knowing the damage that substance misuse can cause, I find that very concerning and I would like to see the problem addressed more robustly by the Ministry of Defence.
We know that drug misuse is prevalent in the armed forces, with data from the Ministry of Defence showing that, in 2019, 660 Army personnel were dismissed from their duties after failing a drugs test. 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, only to lose their career as a result, with often devastating personal consequences that result in death or imprisonment.
Housing is another huge problem. A freedom of information request submitted to the Scottish Government last year revealed that almost 250 ex-service personnel were living in some form of temporary accommodation across Scotland. How can it be that in 2021 we still have veterans—men and women who have served their country in some of the harshest environments in the world—going without the basic human right of a permanent roof over their head? We very much need to get to grips with that issue
The problems faced by our veterans community are multifaceted. As a society, we owe it to them to confront those issues and find solutions, but Government support is very often marching in the opposite direction.
The British Government’s defence command paper that was published in March this year included plans to reduce the full-time established strength of the Army from 82,500 to 72,000 by 2025, leaving the UK with the smallest Army since 1714. Closures are planned at Fort George, Glencorse barracks and Redford barracks, cutting the number of regular soldiers and the footprint of the forces community in Scotland from 3,700 to just 2,000. There will also be a real-terms cut in revenue funding in the next four years. That means less money for forces recruitment, training, pay and families. It means a possible cut of 40 per cent to the budget of the office for veterans affairs.
Despite a recently announced across-the-board pay rise, members of the armed forces have faced a real-terms overall pay cut since 2010, with private soldiers’ pay down 7.5 per cent during the decade.
Additional funding from all levels of Government for mental health projects and those who are tackling substance misuse is urgently needed as a starting point, but we need more than that—we need a cultural and societal change.
I thank the member for taking an intervention and agree with virtually every word that he has said. In relation to funding, however, will he acknowledge the fact that we receive no funding either for the work that we do to support the armed forces and their families or veterans? If that is the priority that all Administrations think it should be, surely that should be recognised in the settlement that we get from Westminster. Does the member agree?
I would rather not get into a debate about the economics of the Barnett formula, but there is on average 30 per cent higher per head public spending in Scotland than there is in England, so there is significant scope for the Government to do a lot in Scotland. It is not about what the Government is doing, which I commend—there is much more that we can push the envelope on in Scotland than might be recognised by the Government.
Although I recognise that work is being done, we need to go further with societal change and place an emphasis on the value that veterans can bring to communities, as Mr Mountain said. Once someone’s service is complete, they can offer so much to society. I would like to see more work being done by the Scottish Government when it comes to housing and mental health support.
Although I appreciate that constraints are placed on the Government when it comes to areas such as drug misuse, there can be no such excuses when it comes to homelessness or a lack of access to mental health services, and the extra £800,000 announced by the minister just does not go far enough to help charities to address the scale of the challenge in Scotland.
I assure both Governments that they will have my full support and the support of Labour members for any measures that are taken to improve the lives of ex-servicemen and women. In many areas, however, the Governments are found wanting.15:22
It gives me great pleasure to speak for the Liberal Democrats in the debate. I pay tribute to the speakers who have gone before me and give them our thanks. Each of them is a veteran and I am profoundly grateful for the service that they have given to this country.
In France and Belgium every year, farmers unearth from their fields barbed wire, shell casings, shrapnel and bullets. The “iron harvest”, as it is referred to, is the product and material of a war that was fought more than 100 years ago. Although the memories of the men who served in that war have now passed, it has always been very striking to me that the land still gives up the product and material of that war. It has almost been metastasised into the very ground on which that war was fought. The word “metastasised” is very appropriate, given that Wilfred Owen described the mechanised slaughter of the western front as being “Obscene as cancer”. It is from Wilfred Owen’s words that we learned much of what life was like in the trenches in that difficult time. He also wrote that not even poetry was “fit to speak” of the sacrifices made and the lives lost.
As we know, Wilfred Owen was one of his generation’s finest poets. He was treated for his injuries not far from this building, at Craiglockhart hospital, where he wrote some of his most famous poems and discovered his immense potential as a literary master. That potential was tragically dashed shortly after he returned to the front line, only a week before the armistice was signed. He was only 25 years old, and therefore typical of many of the young men who lost their lives in that conflict. He was not alone in having his life cut so tragically short.
Vast numbers of people in the armed forces did not benefit from the treatment that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon both received at Craiglockhart. During their time there, they taught at Tynecastle high school, which is one of the best schools in the country.
I am very grateful to the cabinet secretary for such a considered intervention. I had not known that about Tynecastle, and I am grateful to him for telling me.
Unfortunately, the combat stress that Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and many others felt—they were described at the time as being shell shocked—is a condition that has been replicated down the ages. Many soldiers are still fighting the conflicts that they participated in many years after those conflicts came to an end.
The world wars are responsible for some of the greatest losses in the history of our islands. Each one sent aftershocks through families and communities, just as they would, in turn, send aftershocks through global politics, some of the reverberations of which are still felt today.
My first speech in the Scottish Parliament fell on a particular anniversary for my family. On that day a century previously, my great uncle, a private in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles out of Saskatchewan, was killed at the age of 23, along with 80 per cent of his battalion, on the first day of the battle of Mont Sorel. His name was Alexander Bennet, and I am named for him. I cannot imagine the horror with which he greeted his final hours. In that battle, the Canadians were gassed and undermined. It was also one of the first occasions on which the Germans used flame-throwers as a front-line weapon. I cannot imagine the horror that he would have experienced. His body was never found. His name appears on the Menin Gate, along with those of so many others.
One million British Army personnel died during the first and second world wars. While we remember their sacrifices today, we must also acknowledge the global nature of those conflicts. Soldiers from across the Commonwealth fought—soldiers from countries such as Australia, Canada, Africa and India. More than 4 million Indian soldiers and 3 million African soldiers fought during the world wars. Although they fought under the British union jack, they were often paid significantly less and treated worse than their white counterparts. The crucial efforts and sacrifices of those forces in securing allied victory is often omitted from our history books. That is why Anas Sarwar’s motion on securing Scotland’s first permanent memorial to the soldiers of the British Indian Army, which I have signed, is so important.
Last remembrance Sunday, we could not come together in our communities. Instead, we were confined to commemorating remembrance within our households or on our own at cenotaphs. I did so with my family at the Davidson’s Mains war memorial on the green. This year, I look forward to returning to Davidson’s Mains, this time with our community. I will also attend at South Queensferry, where I will lay wreaths on behalf of the Parliament.
This Sunday, we will be united once again, whether in laying wreaths or attending services, in remembering those whom we lost. We are reminded of the sacrifices that were made for us every day, whether by walking past the national war memorial here in Edinburgh or driving across the Churchill barriers up in Orkney. Across Europe, there are constant reminders of the wars that were fought.
In remembering the victims of war, we remember the cost of that conflict. Margaret Atwood once said:
“War is what happens when language fails.”
In recent times, nationally and internationally, we have been divided. As a result, our language has often failed. The events of the last century have taught us that peace is a fragile matter and is upheld only through communication and co-operation. We must all make an active effort to encompass those values in our daily and political practices. We owe that to everyone who lost their lives due to the absence of those values.
The first world war gained its name posthumously. It was known at the time as the great war; it was also originally known by some as the war to end all wars, because people at the time struggled to conceive that humanity would once again resort to such mass desolation and destruction. I, too, find that hard to reconcile. I am reminded of the old adage that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. That is at the centre of why we remember. We must learn the lessons of history.
The importance of conflict resolution and finding peaceful solutions to friction is one of the key reasons for my being a Quaker. Although I am a Quaker and believe in non-violence, I still carry the utmost respect for those who take up arms in harm’s way and try to defend this country and our values for the greater good. Despite the fact that more than 100 years have passed since the war to end all wars, hundreds of thousands continue to lose their lives to conflict across the world. We need to continue to recognise the courage and sacrifice of those people, whether in the context of world wars that were fought decades ago or—Paul Sweeney summed this up beautifully—in how we treat our troops and our veterans today.
As time moves on, the first-hand accounts of those who gave their todays for our tomorrows will slip away, but age shall not weary their memory or their spirit. What they sacrificed must never be in vain, and they must never be forgotten.15:29
I am grateful to speak in the debate and commemorate those who have given so much for our country and the society that we live in today.
I have long been a strong supporter of the Gordon Highlanders. My dad may have completed his national service by the time that I was born, but that did not stop me being brought up as a Gordons’ bairn and having their values instilled in me as I grew up. At least three generations of my family have proudly served in the regiment, and it will be no surprise to members to learn that I know the commitment and honour that we owe to our servicemen, servicewomen and the armed forces community in Scotland.
My family’s history with the Gordons is long and rich. My great-grandfather on my mam’s side, William Stephen, served in the Boer wars and won two medals in 1901 and 1902. During a visit to the Gordon Highlanders museum, I was honoured to be shown a portrait of him, showing him proudly mounted on his horse. I also had the opportunity to see and hold his medals. I am hugely grateful to the Gordon Highlanders museum for facilitating that. That personal touch is just one of the reasons why it is a five-star tourist attraction.
My great-great uncle Robert Dunbar died aged just 23 at the battle of Arras in 1918, and my granda Dunbar was captured at St Valery during world war two and became a prisoner of war. Although he did not often speak about his experiences, I know that he had a difference of opinion, let us say, with his German guards and ended up on a charge. I will not go into the details as it would take too long, but I will say that thanks tae spikkin i Doric, he came hame tae my grunny and his bairns efter i war wis endit. Fit wey? Because i Swiss interpreter couldnae unnerstand his Buchan-Deutsch accent. He ayewis said that wis fit saved him. I will always be grateful for that.
The Gordon Highlanders are a part of my city’s history and heritage, and should be remembered with pride and gratitude for all that the regiment has done for more than 200 years. It was my greatest honour to lodge a motion at Aberdeen City Council in 2007 to erect a commemorative statue, which now stands proud at the Castlegate. It depicts two Gordons, one from when the regiment was first raised and the other depicting its last tour. They have their backs to each other, showing that no matter where they are in the history of the Gordons, they have each other’s back. That is a very local example that is close to my heart, but it is replicated across the country by other regiments that deserve to be honoured and remembered on this day.
I move on from my family’s experiences and the Gordons to what our Scottish Government has done for veterans across Scotland. I am proud that, since 2008, our Scottish Government has supported more than 180 projects through the Scottish veterans fund, which has recently been doubled. I am pleased to see the renewed commitment to supporting the fund for the coming years, furthering the continuing and growing support available to our veterans.
It is important to remember that supporting our veterans can bring much wider benefits. We know that veterans can offer a lot following their return to civilian employment—they are dependable, hard-working and adaptable. The offshore industry in Aberdeen understands the hard work and commitment that veterans can offer, and it is clear that they have reaped the benefits of recruiting those who have experience in the armed forces.
With the Scottish veterans fund prioritising those leaving the forces in order to help them find new career paths, there is a clear local tie-in, and as we look towards a just transition for our region, the adaptable skills that veterans have and can learn could help new businesses and industries to establish themselves in our city.
I continue to encourage organisations, not only in my Aberdeen Donside constituency but in Aberdeen as a whole, to consider applying to the fund to support those who have served our country and ensure that those who leave the armed forces can thrive as they transition into civilian life.
I was pleased to receive assurances from the Scottish Government regarding the support services that are available to veterans and the ways in which the Scottish Government is working with veterans’ charities to ensure that the support that is provided meets our veterans’ needs. The Scottish Government’s veterans strategy sets out to make Scotland a destination of choice for service leavers by creating an open, inclusive and supportive environment for them to come to.
I was also pleased to hear further information regarding the funding to Housing Options Scotland, which provides advice and advocacy services to veterans and helps to address homelessness in that population. The service is commissioned by Veterans Scotland’s housing group to ensure that the support is accessible and fit for purpose for all veterans.
I finish where I started, with the Gordon Highlanders. I was brought up with the saying “Once a Gordon, ayewis a Gordon”, so I make no apology for finishing with the Gordons’ motto: “Bydand”.15:36
I join colleagues across the chamber in expressing my gratitude to all the servicemen and women who have protected and continue to protect the rights and freedoms not only of us, in the United Kingdom, but of those in need across the world. It is only right that we continue to commemorate 11 November every year. We must not forget the lessons of the past or the people who helped us to learn those lessons. We must remember them, and we will remember them.
As part of remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we have an opportunity to remember family members, and on this occasion I want to pay tribute to my grandfather, who fought and died in the second world war. He served as a lieutenant in the Parachute Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders, who were so admirably described by Jackie Dunbar.
At the end of November 1942, the 2nd battalion, in which my grandfather served, found itself at the head of a rapid eastward drive across north Africa as the allies tried to sweep the Germans out of the continent. It was reported that his last action was when the battalion had been sent ahead of the main advance to destroy aircraft at German airfields in Tunisia. Their drop, 50 miles behind enemy lines, was spotted by German patrols, which brought in reinforcements. At the same time, the main allied force, which was supposed to be advancing, was delayed.
The Germans called on the surrounded and relatively lightly defended Paras to surrender, but the call was rejected. With tanks, heavy mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire, the Germans attacked. After two hours, his unit, C Company, had, according to the documents,
“almost ceased to exist as a fighting unit”.
The survivors were saved only after a German fighter aircraft swooped down and mistakenly attacked its own men, knocking out several of their tanks. The remnants of the battalion then staged a lengthy fighting withdrawal over the following night and day, fending off German attacks, before finally reaching allied lines at Medjez el Bab.
I am very proud to be his grandson, and I will always stand up for our veterans and the importance of ensuring that we never forget the ultimate sacrifice that so many have made for us to live in a free country. I thank those who maintain the war cemeteries in Tunisia and elsewhere around the world for the amazing job that they do in respecting those who fell by keeping such places of remembrance in immaculate condition.
In 2018, we celebrated the armistice day centenary, and I took it upon myself to visit all 50 war memorials in my constituency of Aberdeenshire West, from Finzean to Corgarff and Cairnie. However, when I was visiting many of those memorials, I was disappointed to see that many graveyards are not being maintained properly. Many of our servicemen and women are laid to rest in these graveyards, and their memories should be honoured and their headstones maintained.
Due to several cuts to councils across the country, that is a growing issue. I urge the Scottish Government to increase funding to our councils, which have seen continuous cutbacks. I ask the cabinet secretary to look into the issue and perhaps even consider providing direct funding to community councils or other local groups to ensure that all graveyards can be kept appropriately in order, to show our respect.
On a positive note, I am pleased that the Scottish Government collaborated with the UK Government to publish a joint strategy for our veterans that will run until 2028. The strategy aims to address the immediate needs of older veterans and develop ways for the newer generation of veterans to be empowered and supported. Veterans welcomed the announcement of the strategy, noting that it puts the needs of the community before party politics. I would welcome an update from the cabinet secretary on how the strategy is progressing.
I am delighted that the UK Government has continued to show its commitment to supporting veterans throughout the UK and Scotland. The new Office for Veterans’ Affairs has been of huge benefit to the veterans community, which has since seen armed forces charities receive £5 million in additional funding to support those who have served, as well as an extra £2.7 million towards mental health services. Since April 2021, employers have been eligible for a holiday from national insurance contributions for veterans who have been hired during their first year of civilian employment after leaving the armed forces.
There is a lot of support to help veterans to transition into alternative employment, with many organisations and charities working to help them achieve their next career step. It is important that both of our Governments work together to improve support for our veterans, and I am pleased that much work is being done to achieve that.
I will finish by thanking those who have fought for us and those who continue to serve. In recent times, you have come to our aid when we have needed support, to protect us from an invisible disease. You always step up to do what is required for your country. We are grateful, and we thank you for your service.15:41
For more than 100 years, the Army has played an important part in the area of Edinburgh that I represent, with Dreghorn barracks and Redford infantry and cavalry barracks located in my constituency. I thank Paul Sweeney for reminding members that the MOD is due to close Redford infantry and cavalry barracks in 2025. The soldiers and their families are very much part of the community, and I take this opportunity to thank those individuals in our armed forces who are helping out during the pandemic, either by driving ambulances or by helping to accelerate the vaccine roll-out across Edinburgh.
For a number of years, I have raised the issue of MOD family accommodation units lying empty across Scotland and the UK. The figures from earlier this year highlighted that 11,000 homes lie empty across the UK, of which 900 are in Scotland and 160 are in Edinburgh alone. Given the housing pressure in Edinburgh, those homes could be used to house veterans or, indeed, the Afghan refugees who worked with our armed forces, instead of those people being housed with their families in hotels by the airport.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to housing veterans through its military matters project, which has received 266 new housing referrals in the past year alone; the £6 million that has been spent since 2012 to build 100 homes for veterans; and the £1.8 million Government grant for Riverside Scotland and Hillcrest housing associations to provide much-needed housing in other parts of the country, including new homes in Edinburgh, which are due to be completed in January 2022.
The transition from Army life to civilian life can be eased when there is enough housing available, and I welcome Scotland’s first long-term housing strategy, housing to 2040. Its implementation will, I hope, alleviate the housing pressures on veterans. I also welcome the allocation practice guidelines encouraging landlords and local authorities to consider giving priority to service personnel when allocating homes.
I will take this opportunity to talk about the symbolism of the poppy and pay tribute to a family member in this remembrance commemoration. The remembrance day symbolism of the poppy started with the poem “In Flanders Fields”, which was written by world war one Canadian brigade surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae while he was serving in Ypres in 1915. He was struck by the sight of the red flowers growing in the ravaged battlefields, among the dead. His poem channelled the voice of the fallen soldiers who were buried under those hardy poppies.
Among the dead of that war are 147,690 soldiers whose names are recorded on the Scottish national war memorial at Edinburgh castle. One of those names is that of my maternal great-grandfather, John Maclauchan, of the seventh battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, who was killed in April 1917 in Arras. The date of his death is recorded as 5 April, but the battalion chaplain wrote to my great-grandmother to say that he died on 4 April. The circumstances in which ordinary private soldiers died was not normally recorded, but in that instance it was referred to in the regimental war diary, as the regiment was in a rest area away from the front line. The diary says:
“From the 3rd to the 7th of April the Battalion was billeted in the cellars of the Grand Place, Arras, preparatory to the battle. The shelling by the enemy was now considerable, but we only suffered two casualties.”
My great-grandfather was one of the two killed during that period—no name recorded, nothing. I still have his dog tags and a letter from the chaplain to his widow. I was also the first in my family to visit his grave in Arras and lay a poppy wreath in his memory.
That war was supposed to be the war to end all wars—a phrase first used by the author HG Wells, who felt that that war would finally put an end to the sort of Governments and attitudes that brought war about. It is important that we remember Scotland’s war dead by wearing a red poppy in the hope that, one day, Governments across the world will no longer send young men and women to war.
Poppies are worn in many countries around the world as an act of remembrance. We should remember that it was a French woman, Anna Guérin, who was the originator of the remembrance poppy day. Initially, her poppy days benefited the widows and orphans of the war-devastated regions of France. She was christened “the poppy lady from France” after being invited to address the American Legion, at its 1920 convention, about her original inter-allied poppy day idea.
Artificial poppies were first sold in Britain in 1921 to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund and were supplied by Anna Guérin. Selling poppies proved so popular that, in 1922, the British Legion founded a factory to produce its own. The first Scottish poppy factory opened in 1926, in the grounds of Whitefoord House, across the road from the Parliament, in an old wood-chopping factory. Since 2019, Poppyscotland’s temporary home has been located at the Redford barracks, in my constituency, to allow the refurbishment of the factory at Canonmills. The team of 34 veterans hand produces more than 5 million poppies and 15,000 wreaths every year. The staff will move back to the place in Canonmills that has been their home since 1965 after this year’s poppy appeal ends.
The red poppy is a simple and minimal tribute to those who have laid down their lives in the service of their country. The 2020 Scottish poppy appeal raised £2.3 million, which supported the armed forces community in six areas, providing financial support and advice, as well as help with employment, mobility, housing and mental health.
Like many in the chamber, I will be attending a community remembrance service on Sunday to remember my family members who paid the ultimate price.15:48
I share in the thoughts and wishes of members across the chamber as we pay our respects to those who have fallen and those who still feel the pain of those losses to this day.
As an MSP for South Scotland, I, like many others here today, have met and worked alongside members of our armed forces community during campaigns and outreach down the years. In that time, I have been struck by their deep sense of commitment and dedication, not only to their country but to others who went before them and, indeed, to the places where they live. Many of the charities and community groups that we all work with daily have at their heart people with a forces background, who use the skills that they have learned to improve the places that they call home. If we can reflect a sense of that commitment today, we will have given something worth while back to our country and the rich culture that is a key part of the armed forces here in Scotland.
In that spirit, today I am wearing a poppy that was made for me by pupils at Kyle academy in Ayr—a brilliant school, full of inspiring teachers and bright young pupils. Those children are actively learning about the stories and events that led to so many losing their lives so that we could live without war. Sadly, however, we are not there yet, and it is for their sake, as much as for those who fell, that we must continue in our efforts to educate each generation that follows and move forward towards a world without war. After all, that is what we all want and, to my mind, it is the best way to remember the sacrifices of the past.
These memorials, large and small—whether a national moment of silence or young people making crafts at school—are all important, not least because they force us to shine a light on the harsh lessons of war, while being reverential and educational about the issues that surround it.
For me, the key points are the educational aspect of remembrance commemorations and the understanding that war has so many victims, some of whom are never truly remembered. If even for a moment I can persuade others to cast their mind towards those individuals too, I will have done some good. I want our children to grow up understanding why those wars happened and, equally, learning how we can avoid them in the future. I hope that our children can teach us too, as we still see too much pain in the world due to conflict today.
Part of getting to that point is appreciating the significance of the effects of war on those who fought and their families, both physically and mentally. As we have heard from Paul Sweeney, mental health care to veterans and their loved ones is important and must be available—whether self-guided wellbeing support, one-to-one or group therapy, or access to psychological services, all of which veterans have reported to be essential at various times in their journey back to civilian life.
Access to mental health support services is a vital focus. My friend recognised the Samaritans’ recent innovation of a specialised veterans app, which is potentially an effective way of improving access to mental health services, particularly for those in a crisis.
Yes—very much so. We hear that getting the right thing at the right time makes the biggest difference to people, and I have other examples of charities and veterans organisations that do great work to ensure that people get access to those services.
I believe that reaching out also involves giving veterans and their families a place to talk and share their experiences. I welcome the work of charities, such as First Point Ayrshire and Arran in my community, that also help people find jobs, housing and other support. Equally, many active chapters of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA, the armed forces charity—and the Royal British Legion across South Scotland do exceptional work in the community for their own members and those in need from a veteran background and their families.
I draw attention to a more recent, but equally overlooked, aspect of the issue that other members have mentioned, about the vital role that the armed forces have played in protecting the health of Scotland and the UK during the pandemic and at the moment. Civilian assistance, which includes driving ambulances and heavy goods vehicles, and helping with the vaccination programme, is becoming increasingly important. That change goes to show the evolving role that those brave men and women can play in many different parts of our country, and we should express our gratitude for all of that here today. I thank all the members who have contributed to the debate.15:53
My constituency is a constituency of two halves—part Midlothian and part Borders, each with a close connection to the armed forces.
In the Borders, we have the home of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which my late father joined to serve in the second world war along with his great pal Jock Hunter from Hawick. Jock was killed in the parachute landings at Arnhem, which my father missed by the sheer luck of having bad feet, being posted instead to Shetland. My father lived to be 93; Jock died in his twenties—such is the randomness of war.
I almost forgot, but there was also my Uncle Dod, his brother, who served in the notorious Arctic convoys. He terrified us as children when he told us that his great black beard froze so hard that it broke into lots of little pieces if you touched it. That is all I remember, and all he ever told us about those dreadful convoys.
In Penicuik, we have Glencorse barracks, which I have also visited several times. The last visit was to demonstrate against its closure, which the MOD tastelessly announced during armistice week in November 2016 and is scheduled for 2032. Glencorse barracks have been there since 1803 and are integral to the community, but there is no sign of a reprieve.
When I first entered the Parliament, MOD support for veterans and their families was scant. Due to pressure from both Parliaments—here and at Westminster—and from Army veterans and their families, that has, thankfully, improved, although much is still to be done, especially for those who are injured, traumatised, grieving or finding civilian life a great challenge.
It is a duty that politicians should never shirk, as it is they who send men and women into the battlefields of war, crisis, and starvation—too often, unfortunately, with no exit strategy and sometimes with poor equipment. I mention both wars in Iraq and the several wars in Afghanistan. Our front-line service personnel are left to pick up the pieces of human misery. The impact on their mental wellbeing, which has been mentioned by many, and on family life must be substantial.
However, support is out there. Veterans First Point Borders branch—run by NHS Scotland and part of the armed forces covenant—opened on 24 June 2016. It provides veterans services throughout the Borders. It consists of veteran peer support workers, clinicians, therapists and an administration team. It provides information and signposting; understanding and listening; support and social networking; and health and wellbeing, to ex-forces personnel and their families and carers. It has services and support to address whatever issues may be of concern to them, including transition from the armed forces, which is a huge difficulty for many.
In Midlothian, we have the Lothians veterans centre in Dalkeith. In addition to core services, it has organised a number of social activities with the opportunity to create new friendships, rekindle old ones and indulge in some military banter. Before Covid, for example, there were monthly outings—to Edinburgh castle, to the royal yacht Britannia or simply, gone fishing.
It was there that I met up with the Royal British Legion Riders, which is a national branch of the Royal British Legion that covers the UK. It supports and promotes the work of the Royal British Legion as that, in turn, supports the serving and ex-serving members of the British armed forces. The riders are brought together by their enthusiasm for motorbikes and their willingness to support the aims and charitable efforts of the Royal British Legion. I supported their coming to the Parliament. I am sorry that Liam Kerr is not here, as I am about to mention him. Somewhere in the archives, there is a photo of me and an overexcited Liam Kerr astride a buffed-up and shiny Harley-Davidson. I hasten to add that we were on separate bikes.
I welcome the opportunity to highlight some of the good work that is being done. However, I am mindful that our service personnel cannot express dissent when politicians take decisions that put their lives—not the politicians’ lives—on the line, so they have every right to complain when they and their families are not supported on discharge. Valuing our service personnel must extend beyond one day a year, and that will be in my thoughts as I represent the Scottish Parliament in Peebles on Sunday, wearing the gifted collection of poppies that I am wearing now: red for Poppyscotland; the white poppy of peace; and the purple, which people have asked about and which is for all the animals that have been a part of war. In the first world war in particular, animals were slaughtered and were on the front line along with all the people. We must remember all.15:58
On this remembrance day, I wear a white poppy. The white poppy has been worn for more than 80 years to symbolise three things: remembrance of all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise and celebrate war.
On this armistice day, I remember all victims of all wars—those that are in the past and those that are being fought as we speak. Suffering does not stop at national borders, so I include people of all nationalities, members of all armed forces, and all civilians. I remember and acknowledge all those who have been killed in war, wounded in body or mind, or left without homes or health, family or community. I remember family member, friend and stranger. I remember those who have been killed or imprisoned for resisting war or refusing to fight.
However, it is not enough simply to remember. Our remembering must be active. We have a responsibility to all those whom we remember today to act—to strive for a better world—so that we can genuinely mean it when we say, “Never again.”
That is why I include both a commitment to peace and a challenge to militarism in my remembering. That means always seeking non-violent solutions to conflict. It means building our communities and economies on systems and processes that do not lead to war. It means working to ensure that all our Governments and institutions do not promote or contribute to war. It means challenging our economic reliance on arms sales and our investment in nuclear weapons. It means building the support systems—the housing, the healthcare and community—that will keep us all safe and well.
White poppies challenge the promotion of militarism by drawing attention to the human and environmental cost of war. They highlight the urgency of our struggle for peace, and they remind us of the importance of year-round resistance to war and military conflict, because war is not the present or the future that we want.
We will all be familiar with the fine words, the sometimes stark words, and the words of warning and condemnations of violence that have come to us in the form of the poetry of the war poets who served in the first world war. I want to read a bit of poetry.
I will read an extract not from one of those first world war poets, but from Hamish Henderson’s “Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica”. Incidentally, Henderson was born on the first anniversary of armistice day; he would have been 102 today. The extract was written during, after and about the allied campaign in north Africa in the second world war, in which Henderson played a part. It does something very important, profoundly human, yet deeply difficult. It recognises the enemy. It values the enemy, living and dead. It acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. The extract is from “End of a Campaign”.
“There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.
There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villainy of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”
So today, I wear a white poppy. Today, I remember all the victims of all wars. Today, I think of all that war destroys: innocence, safety, hope, love, life. Today, I reaffirm my commitment to work for peace for all.16:04
On Sunday, in Whitehall, the Cenotaph will, once again, be the focus of the nation’s annual remembrance. The monument’s simplicity and grace, the poignancy of the tomb of the unknown warrior and the poppy are the most powerful symbols of our remembrance.
As the years pass, so, too, do the anniversaries of our war history, but the significance of our acts of remembrance only grows. Nothing at all can ever dim the memory of all the people who gave their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom, or the nation’s determination to remember them.
Those acts of remembrance—small or large, public or private—are part of the nation’s being, and rightly so. So, too, are our veterans and their families, because improving their lives and those of their families should be a core part of the legacy that those who did not come home would want to leave.
Every veteran, whatever their personal background, should feel supported around the clock on every day of every year, and should know that that support will be provided by our two Governments, which are absolutely in unison when it comes to the priorities within that support. No one should ever feel left behind or feel that we do not care, which is why it is important to recognise the considerable progress that has been made in recent years, which has been ably led in many respects by the cabinet secretary’s predecessor, Graeme Dey, and by the cabinet secretary now. All too often, Parliament can descend into aggressive tribal politics, but when it comes to veterans support, we are united. That is testimony to the esteem in which our veterans are held.
Covid has brought home to us how much we rely on the armed services and how important they are when it comes to serving the best interests of the civilian population. How vital were their efforts to help communities to deliver essential services, to drive ambulances and other blue-light vehicles, to assist with the vaccination and testing programmes and, of course, to carry out their usual duties? It is often remarked upon that the British armed services have the highest standards of professionalism in the world.
Alex Cole-Hamilton rightly mentioned people from other nations who serve this country. I also draw attention to the contribution that was made by the 4 million service personnel in the British Indian Army, which included Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Gurkhas, many of whom gave their lives to free Europe. Unfortunately, the British Indian Army’s role seems to be forgotten. Does Liz Smith acknowledge the role that it played in the first and second world wars?
Yes, I absolutely associate myself with the remark that my colleague Pam Gosal has made. The point that she makes is important; I urge everybody who looks after veterans’ interests always to recognise how many people from different countries and backgrounds have been involved.
Whatever the challenges that they face, including the realignments that often happen in the military—including some that are happening right now—our armed forces display professionalism that is beyond reproach. When we look after them following their return to civilian life, they deserve the same standards, so I will take some of the issues in turn.
As other speakers have said, healthcare and mental wellbeing are paramount. Our veterans often have complex issues, including physical disability that impacts on their mobility, and they often find themselves alone. Their being proud men and women because of their professional training can often make them reluctant to ask for help, but as we all know, suffering in silence can only make things worse. Therefore, it is imperative that we support them well with their medical needs and work with the third sector and the veterans charities to help them to cope.
I have to commend the trauma risk management system in the British armed forces, which allows senior professionals or retired professionals to provide appropriate support to their colleagues in the aftermath of traumatic events or, at least, to point them in the right direction to get adequate support.
At this point, I want to say how much regard I have for the people who work in those support networks. There are too many of them to mention by name, but they are the real lifeline that few of the rest of us could ever provide. It is good to see the increased funding that supports those networks, but we should never underestimate the extent of the pressure on their resources.
Nor should we ever underestimate the number of veterans who are either homeless or are facing difficult issues in housing, which is why we are so much in favour of the dedicated veterans help-to-buy scheme, so that veterans can find it easier to get onto the property ladder. That measure, together with the Scottish income tax mitigation that is awarded to veterans by the UK Government, is important and should be an important part of any armed forces covenant to help veterans to transition to civilian life.
I turn to education and skills, in which some aspects remain in need of improvement. At a time when it is quite clear in the Scottish economy that there is a mismatch of skills in the jobs market, it is vital that the assistance that is provided to veterans be based on the need to provide relevant training to ensure that they have a diverse range of skills that suit the inevitability of a much more flexible future jobs market. That is not easy, but it is an essential part of veterans moving back to civilian life and of providing greater stability for veterans’ families.
It is essential that there are no barriers in the way. For example, some years ago, veterans and partners of armed forces personnel who had wanted to resume their teaching careers in Scotland found that to be impossible because of restrictions that are imposed in respect of teacher-training qualifications, which are overseen by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Happily, moves were made to amend regulations, although I think that there is still a little way to go in opening up new opportunities.
Of course, one of the most difficult readjustments can be when young families of new veterans have to change school across educational jurisdictions that have different curricula. I have some personal casework experience of that and know just how important it is that the families receive accurate good-quality advice about what different curricula can offer. Educational security at school is essential for helping veterans’ families to settle into their new circumstances, so it is important that they have professional guidance to hand.
The Scottish Conservatives have the very highest regard for our armed forces, and will always stand up for them and for all 220,000 veterans in Scotland in every way we can. We salute the service that they have given, for which we owe them so very much.16:12
I draw attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am the chair of the Neilston War Memorial Association.
As we mark armistice day and look ahead to this weekend’s commemorations, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. In doing so, I wish to remember all those who have lost their lives in conflict down through the years and remember those who are still living with pain today. Indeed, I think of all veterans across our communities and how we must do more to support them. I also pay tribute to our serving personnel, whether at home or abroad, and I particularly want to highlight the incredible work that has been done by our armed forces throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether staffing the asymptomatic testing centre in Barrhead, close to where I live, driving ambulances across the West Scotland region or supporting the logistics of the first vaccination centres, from Giffnock to Greenock, they have made a huge difference to the lives of people in the communities that I serve.
At the heart of remembrance, we reflect on service—the service of keeping us safe, of protecting our freedom and of helping the most vulnerable in our world. We remember those who have given their lives in that service, whether in two world wars or in more recent conflicts.
I wish to speak today about those who keep the flame of remembrance alive in our communities and those who continue to work to support veterans across Scotland. I never fail to be amazed by the dedication of the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland, which, as we have heard, marks its 100th anniversary this week.
As custodians of remembrance, Poppyscotland ensures that, down through the generations, people have space to reflect and remember, but it also does amazing work to support veterans across Scotland. It is supported by groups of volunteers, and, along with many other colleagues, I was honoured to meet some of them at the launch of the Scottish poppy appeal here in Parliament.
I was particularly pleased to meet Donna Louise Armstrong from Lochwinnoch, who organises the annual appeal in the village and further afield in Johnstone, and who received the president’s award for her amazing fundraising efforts. She is an inspiration and draws people to support the appeal every year. Donna Louise has also undertaken a range of fundraising efforts to support Poppyscotland, including a terrifying wing walk. Her fundraising makes a real difference to the lives of veterans across Scotland and she does all of this in memory of her nephew, who died in service in Afghanistan.
I also think of the wonderful team of people in the Neilston War Memorial Association with whom I have been proud to work over many years. I know that my village’s quest for a war memorial, which culminated in its unveiling in 2015, has been mentioned in the Parliament a few times, but it is a real honour for me to highlight the work of the association today, having been involved since its inception in 2011.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to pay tribute to Corporal David Timmins since his death in January. David was awarded the Queen’s gallantry medal for his bravery in rescuing a comrade when an improvised explosive device exploded in Afghanistan. David worked for veterans’ rights and support after his recovery, and he was influential in setting up the Neilston War Memorial Association. I know that his loss is keenly felt in the community, but his legacy, of course, lives on in all the work that is done.
Supported by the sterling work of its secretary, Matt Drennan, the association not only cares for the memorial gardens and continues the act of remembrance in the village each year, but has grown to deliver for the people of the village, in memory of all those who never came home from the front lines of the first and second world wars.
Each year, the association raises money to deliver Christmas lights and celebrations, gifts for local children from Santa and an annual poppy stone hunt. During the pandemic, the association delivered hundreds of craft packs to local children, organised afternoon teas for older people who were shielding and helped to facilitate community newsletters, food parcels and even socially distanced doorstep community concerts with the outstanding Neilston pipe band at Kirk Glebe sheltered housing complex.
When people ask Matt why the association does all that, he points to the stories of hundreds of young men who never returned to Neilston from Flanders and the beaches of Normandy. Those names are etched on the war memorial but, as we all know, remembrance is about more than that. Their stories have been recorded and meticulously researched so that they are not forgotten. In their name, the association seeks to work for the benefit of children and young people who live in the village today and are of a similar age to those young men when they died. It does that not to glorify the horrors of war but to aspire to peace and reconciliation.
I also want to talk about the wonderful Erskine charity, which is based in my region. Along with other veterans charities, it has called for real and meaningful action to improve support for those who have served and returned to our communities.
Labour members support the calls to establish clear statutory targets to underpin the delivery of the armed forces covenant. We also support the implementation of the recommendations of Poppyscotland and other armed forces charities to strengthen engagement, to implement the veterans housing pathway and to target provision, with the aim of ensuring that the most vulnerable service personnel and veterans experience a good transition back to civilian life.
On Sunday, whether it is at Abbey cemetery in Elderslie, at the war memorial in Neilston or at the free French memorial monument on Lyle hill in Greenock, I will stand silently and think of all those who have been lost and all that we must still do for the living. I know that colleagues will do something similar in their communities.16:18
As homes and businesses across Scotland fall silent today in remembrance of the nation’s fallen, I am honoured to participate in this debate to reflect on and show my gratitude to all those who have served and sacrificed. Today, we come together to remember all those who, more than a century ago, sacrificed so much when the world changed forever; to remember the day that exhausted soldiers shook hands and the guns fell silent along the western front; to remember all the men and women who have served and suffered in conflicts in the 103 years that have followed; and to remember and respect all those who are involved in the armed forces and veterans community, including service personnel, veterans and their families and children.
Service life impacts on families in many ways. Postings take people away from their support networks and spouses away from employment, and children are uprooted from schools. Therefore, it is vital that we remain committed to providing the very best support for them. As a parent whose boys are both in the armed forces, I know that the point about families is really important. One of my sons is in the second battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and, when he went on his first tour of Afghanistan when he was 18, I know the worry that that brought. My other son is in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
Veterans charities and third sector organisations play an essential role in delivering key support, but they have faced many challenges as a result of the pandemic. I am pleased that the Scottish Government not only recognises and addresses those challenges but has strengthened its financial support to allow those vital services to continue to provide help where it is needed. The £1 million armed forces third sector resilience fund is a clear commitment to Scotland’s former military personnel and builds on our proud track record of being there for our serving and military communities and their families.
In addition to setting up the national veterans care network—to ensure parity of access to specialist services and to support improved access to employment for spouses and partners of serving military personnel—the fund will allow Veterans First Point to continue its dynamic work. Developed by veterans for veterans and staffed by an alliance of clinicians and veterans, the service provides accessible, credible and co-ordinated services to veterans and the veteran community.
Veterans First Point has been providing support across the kingdom of Fife since 2016. Early this year, it moved to a new dedicated centre, which was opened by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans. The new centre allows greater opportunities to improve the lives of the people of Fife and deliver the services, support and care that are needed in the right places and at the right time.
The centre is one of six Scottish centres that are jointly funded by the Scottish Government. The partnership between Veterans First Point, NHS Fife and Fife Council has had great success in delivering accessible, credible and co-ordinated services to ensure that veterans get the best possible care and support. The partnership was further strengthened in 2017 when Fife Council reaffirmed its support for Fife’s armed forces community with the appointment of an armed forces and veterans community champion. Acting as the elected representative link between the armed forces, veterans, the community and the council, the appointment of Councillor Rod Cavanagh, who works closely with the services, has brought a hugely positive impact locally.
One service user described the centre as
“A ‘haven’ for myself and others, providing a variety of welfare, social and mental health support, together with comradeship and most importantly a cuppa and a catch up, giving us a sense of wellbeing.”
Statistics that have been reported by the group that runs the centre show that 37 per cent of veterans who use the First Point Veterans service have experienced homelessness at some time in their lives, 31 per cent have addresses in the areas of the highest levels of social deprivation in Scotland, and 7.5 per cent are living with friends, are currently homeless or reside in homes of multiple occupancy. Those figures highlight the clear need for continued focus on the key transition areas, such as housing, health, education and families, and the importance of accessible practical and emotional support.
As we continue the work to ensure that all veterans and armed forces personnel have access to suitable and safe housing, to invest in programmes and strategies to aid mental health, to tackle issues of social isolation and loneliness, and to secure and improve employment opportunities so that veterans can access good jobs once their time in the military is over, it is important that we further develop our understanding and awareness of the needs of our veterans and armed forces communities. I am therefore delighted that Scotland’s census on 20 March 2022 will, for the first time, include a question on previous service in the UK armed forces. That information will give us a much better understanding of the veteran community in Scotland, including numbers, location, housing, employment status and other needs, such as healthcare and education.
In addition, the inclusion of a census question on veterans in the Scottish Government’s three primary surveys—the Scottish household survey, the Scottish health survey and the Scottish crime and justice survey—will vastly improve our understanding of the profile, circumstances and needs of veterans in Scotland. Those important steps will ensure that we have access to an increased quality and quantity of data that will best inform policy development and future strategy and enable targeted support.
I offer my thanks and gratitude to members of the armed forces community for their support throughout the pandemic and across every level of our Covid-19 response, from their work alongside the dedicated men and women of the Scottish Ambulance Service to the operation of mobile testing units to help to identify infections and break chains of transmission, as well as their support to ensure that more than 8 million first and second doses of vaccine have been delivered.
Today is a day of great emotion and rightly so. It is time to remember those who served and who are currently serving and to honour the memory of those whom we have lost. We must acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of those who have served our country to achieve the democracy that we enjoy today, and our responsibility to work for the peace that they fought hard to achieve.
Jackie Baillie, who joins us remotely, will wind up the debate for the Labour Party.16:24
I join others in recording my thanks and the thanks of the Scottish Labour Party to all those who have served our country and, in particular, to those who, over the years, have made the ultimate sacrifice.
I also welcome Keith Brown back to the veterans portfolio, and I thank Graeme Dey for his work as the veterans minister. I am also thankful for all the contributions from across the chamber. There have been some very powerful personal stories of family members who have served their country over the years.
I am pleased to continue as deputy convener of the cross-party group on armed forces, veterans and their families in this new parliamentary session. I very much welcome the support and expertise that has been given to us over the years by the Scottish veterans commissioner Charlie Wallace, both in identifying required improvements and change and in holding the Government to account.
Members will know very well that my constituency has a large armed forces community. It is made up of veterans, as well as current forces personnel who serve our country at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. That community is growing, because in addition to the 11,000 people who rely on Faslane for employment and the 6,500 people who work directly for the MOD or are their partners, around another 2,000 navy personnel and their family members are relocating, or have relocated, to Faslane as a result of the decision by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to relocate all UK submarines there.
One can imagine the complexity of transferring 2,000 forces personnel and their families. There has been considerable co-operation and partnership working among Argyll and Bute Council, the MOD, West Dunbartonshire Council and others, just to make sure that there is sufficient housing, school places and opportunities for military spouses to access employment. I am very pleased that the cabinet secretary has had the opportunity to visit a project at Faslane that matches the skills and talents of spouses to job opportunities or encourages them to set up in business for themselves.
Colleagues across Parliament have raised issues in relation to homelessness, access to housing, access to healthcare—mental healthcare, in particular—and many other areas. However, I will focus most of my comments on education—an area that has not really been touched on, other than by Liz Smith. I have raised these issues before; they are nothing new. I am sure that I have raised them with the cabinet secretary as well as with his predecessor, the veterans minister, so he will know that I am persistent about them.
First, I raise the question of the service pupil premium. It is provided by the Department for Education to schools in England for pastoral care for forces children. It is not available in Scotland, and it is not part of pupil equity funding. That is genuinely disappointing, given the concentration of forces families in particular geographical areas of Scotland, because those local authorities could well do with the additional funding. The Scottish Government receives Barnett consequentials for the premium, but those are wrapped up in the general education budget and are not teased out. I ask the cabinet secretary to look at that again.
I turn secondly to the MOD education support fund, which is a UK-wide fund with a budget of £3 million. It was doubled to £6 million, which was welcome, but unfortunately its funding trajectory in the past few years has been downward—the amount of funding has dropped. I mention the fund because Scotland does particularly well out of it—we punch well above our weight. I do not know whether the fund still exists, but there is a need for it. As others have said, when young people go from school to school, the transition is really quite challenging. That kind of funding helps schools and it helps the young people to settle and do well.
It is disappointing that that money is not there, because local authorities such as Argyll and Bute Council would do well out of it. The fund has supported a range of activities in a number of different local authorities in Scotland where large clusters of forces children are in school. It helps during the stressful periods of relocation or deployment separation that those young people experience.
It will not surprise the cabinet secretary when I say that, given that education is a devolved matter, I am looking for him and his colleagues in the Government to do something about that. It would not cost a lot of money, it would make for sustainable planning in the long-term and it would improve the opportunities for those young people, the armed forces personnel and their families. I urge the cabinet secretary to look again at that. It is a small amount of money that would make a significant difference.
Let me touch on the points made by Paul Sweeney. He was right to highlight the issues that will be faced in the future and the implication of the UK Government’s command paper. That will reduce the strength of the Army and precipitate the closure of some barracks, which members have referred to. It will reduce real-terms funding over the next four years, meaning that there is less money for recruitment, pay, veterans and their families. That is simply not acceptable; it is not good enough. We cannot say that we support the armed forces and veterans when, simultaneously, resources are being cut. I appreciate the investment that has been made for veterans over the years and I agree with Christine Grahame about the efforts made by both Governments, going from a standing start with very little in place to improving that investment. However, there is much more to do.
Finally, I thank all our armed forces personnel, as many members across the chamber have done. Their service to our country is greatly appreciated. In particular, I thank the hundreds of them who are helping our paramedics and ambulance drivers in what is a significant period of crisis, the hundreds of them who are acting as vaccinators in towns across the country, helping our hard-pressed NHS staff to ensure that we are safe, and the many of them who are helping with the extreme pressures in our hospitals. For all that they do, every day, we are grateful to them. Like many members, I will be attending community remembrance services—
Ms Baillie, I note that time is moving on in terms of your allocation.
I will conclude.
I call Stephen Kerr to wind up for the Conservatives.16:32
Yesterday, I had the honour of speaking in the debate that was brought to the chamber by my good friend Alexander Stewart to commemorate 100 years of the poppy appeal. It was a moving debate.
Today’s debate has also had some notable contributions, such as that of my colleague Edward Mountain, who spoke about the fragility and price of peace and the unconditional offer that members of our armed forces make in their service. He also spoke about the role of families.
Paul Sweeney was right to bring up issues relating to the current service conditions of our armed forces and the implications of future configuration.
Alex Cole-Hamilton spoke movingly about his great-uncle—I, too, have great-uncles buried in the fields of France and Flanders—and the remarkable story of Wilfred Owen, who chose to go back to the front in what turned out to be the dying days of the war, which tragically led to his death.
Jackie Dunbar made an excellent speech about her family pride in the Gordon Highlanders. I was particularly struck by the concept that they had each other’s backs. That absolutely describes the spirit and tradition of Scotland’s regiments and the regiments of the British Army.
Alexander Burnett spoke movingly about his grandfather and praised the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have seen that work, as many members will have, and it is hugely moving to see how well manicured those graveyards are.
Gordon MacDonald reminded us of the important role that our armed services play in the lives of our communities, and Christine Grahame spoke about the duty of politicians in respect of sending our armed forces into harm’s way. She also conjured up the image of an overexcited Liam Kerr on a Harley-Davidson. I must see that picture.
It will cost you a donation to Poppyscotland to see that picture. [Laughter.]
I will happily make that donation to Poppyscotland for the privilege of seeing that picture.
Liz Smith spoke with her usual authority about matters relating to education. She also spoke about how the spirit of remembrance continues to grow, which I think we will see again this weekend.
Paul O’Kane spoke about the work of the Neilston War Memorial Association, of which he is a member, and the excellent work that it does in the community all year round.
David Torrance reminded us of the power of a cuppa and a catch-up—absolutely. One of the blights of our modern society is loneliness. I also agree with his comments about the census question.
Many members rightly reflected upon the important work that is being done by Poppyscotland in offering support to veterans, active service personnel and their families. The work of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Combat Stress, the Ancre Somme Association and many other service charities is immensely important, and we are grateful for what they do today. Armistice day is a most appropriate time to thank our servicemen and women for everything that they do and to thank our veterans for the contribution that they continue to make in so many walks of life.
For as long as I can remember, it has been my good fortune to have the privilege of working alongside veterans. They are men and women of exceptional character and capacity, and I pay tribute to them. They truly are an asset in every situation in which we come across them. I have learned and continue to learn much from the veterans whom I work alongside. For example, I am grateful to my colleague Edward Mountain, the Scottish Conservative deputy chief whip. I value his leadership and guidance. His life is fashioned by the values of service, duty and patriotism.
I also want to reflect on those who paid the ultimate price to preserve our freedoms and way of life. We owe it to them to never forget what they did for us and to devote ourselves to continuing to work for a better, more civilised and freer world for every human being.
I especially want to thank Her Majesty’s armed forces for all their work in the past year, from helping the most vulnerable Afghans and other nationals to escape the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan—we heard about the emotional consequences of that for many others—to helping the Scottish Government set up NHS Louisa Jordan at the height of the pandemic. The successful roll-out of the vaccination programme throughout Scotland, supported by armed forces personnel, boosted the protection of the most vulnerable against Covid-19. As we speak, members of the armed forces are working to ease the crisis pressures that our national health service is facing. It is in recognition of their service that Governments across the UK have a duty and obligation to veterans and their families.
This week, the Scottish veterans commissioner, Charlie Wallace, published his report on the Scottish Government’s progress against the commissioner’s recommendations to improve veteran services and support in Scotland. Although welcoming progress—as we do in the Conservative Party—the commissioner stated that stubborn challenges remain. Last year, the Scottish veterans commissioner identified 20 recommendations that were in need of more attention from the Scottish Government to drive change, and he highlighted his concerns about employment and skills development, health and mental health services. Among others, those areas were the ones in which the commissioner felt that the on-going pandemic posed an increased risk to service leavers and veterans, who often face additional challenges when seeking civilian employment or health or mental health care services. The commissioner stated:
“we have seen more people suffer from increased anxiety, isolation and job losses, and services which are slower to respond to need.
These are still areas where a strong focus and emphasis on support and early intervention needs to be maintained.”
The veterans commissioner also stated that he wanted to see further progress in other areas that he had previously flagged, including
“the lack of recognition of Service Leavers’ and Veterans’ qualifications, skills and experience which prevents them competing for employment opportunities; efforts to better align Veterans’ skills and abilities with known skills gaps in key sectors of the Scottish economy and where there are labour shortages; and ensuring we get the levels of support right for Early Service Leavers, who can often be vulnerable to poor transition back into civilian society.”
The UK Government has introduced an armed forces champion in every Jobcentre Plus district, who ensures that they provide the support that best meets the needs of the armed forces community. Scotland’s social security system presents opportunities to make a positive and meaningful difference for the armed forces community in Scotland, and one of the ways in which that can be achieved is through the Scottish Government establishing a nationwide armed forces and veterans champion network within Social Security Scotland. Such a network would allow the agency to better understand the specific needs of the armed forces community in Scotland and to build relationships with a view to sharing information and encouraging the community to get more involved in the agency’s experience panels and other forums.
That brings me to the wider issue of the Scottish Government’s use of working groups to oversee policy planning, development and delivery. Although the membership of those working groups often includes people with experience of the policy that is being examined, members of Scotland’s armed forces community—despite their unique needs—are noticeably absent from the membership of such policy working groups. In the light of the unique and often multiple and complex needs of the armed forces community in Scotland, who represent a significant group in society, it is therefore imperative that the Scottish Government consult that community and involve it in future policy development. We believe that there should be a cross-Government commitment to involving our armed forces community in any working groups that are established to develop and take forward policy, thereby ensuring that their specific needs are recognised and their experiences learned from.
Although the Scottish Conservatives recognise that progress has been made, we also recognise that much more needs to be done to support our service personnel and our veterans. We must ensure that they have financial security and prosperity; provide opportunities for further education and employment; and look after their physical and mental health. That is why, as Edward Mountain said in opening the debate for our party, the Scottish Conservatives are proposing to introduce an armed forces and veterans bill in this session of Parliament.
Today, at 11.00 am, we fell silent to remember the sacrifices that were made to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today. On Sunday, we will do the same. Let us come together and show our collective respect for those who paid the ultimate price. We will remember them.
I invite Keith Brown to wind up the debate.16:41
The debate has been very interesting. That applies, not least, to Stephen Kerr’s speech, which was markedly different from that of Liz Smith, who rightly talked about the consensus that we usually have in such debates, and have had for a number of years. There is a real value to that. I know that the many veterans and armed forces personnel who watch these debates take a lot of comfort from that.
However, it is also true to say—especially in relation to veterans—that they have real needs and that they are not unwilling to engage in an argument. Therefore, members should—as Stephen Kerr and Paul Sweeney have done—make trenchant criticism of the Scottish Government when they feel that it is appropriate to do so, and I will respond to it. It might be a bit odd to have a debate that covers remembrance and veterans, which means that it will be hard for me to respond to all the points about veterans that have been made today. For my part, I would be more than willing to attend any debate on the subject of our veterans. I do not think that I have ever had a request for a debate of that nature, not that it is for me to decide whether the Parliament should have such a debate. I would be happy for us to have one.
A number of criticisms have been made, to which I will return, but first I want to mention a number of speeches by back benchers, several of which Stephen Kerr mentioned. I apologise if I miss anybody out.
With regard to Alexander Burnett’s point about graveyards, I am not sure that I agree that we should just give a dollop of further cash to local government and hope that that will effect the change that he seeks. It is also true to say that, as his colleague Edward Mountain said, any graves in graveyards that are for fallen personnel can be looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, although not in every case. If there are any such graves that Alexander Burnett is aware of that are not being looked after, he should feel free to raise that with the commission. One grave in Kingussie cemetery came to mind when it was mentioned by Edward Mountain. That is the appropriate way to deal with that issue.
Alexander Burnett will know that it is the practice of the UK and Scottish Governments not to fund war memorials. However, a number of years ago, we introduced a fund to help people to maintain and improve war memorials, where that was required.
Gordon MacDonald spoke about his great-grandfather and expressed his support for Jackie Dunbar’s point that, once a Gordon, always a Gordon. He liked that a huge amount. It was a very good point about the Gordon Highlanders. It is amazing how many people in different parts of Scotland claim to be Highlanders—today, I was at a remembrance event in Glasgow for the Glasgow Highlanders—and I dare say that that is to do with the reputation of Highlanders around Scotland.
Christine Grahame mentioned the situation at Glencorse barracks. It is bizarre that the MOD would close a facility that had £60 million spent on it only recently. When I previously had responsibility for veterans, I talked to a former UK veterans minister—he has long since left the position—who told me confidentially that he could not understand the decision, that it was totally Treasury mandated and that it made no sense whatsoever. Like Christine Grahame, I hope that further thought will be given to that decision. The former UK minister believed that it would shortly be reversed and that the facility would be maintained. I hope that that will be the outcome.
In a really interesting contribution, Maggie Chapman quoted Hamish Henderson. I should make it clear that I am not a pacifist; from what she said in her speech, I think that Maggie Chapman probably is. She mentioned “half-wit stunted ill-will”, which is a fantastic description—so much of Hamish Henderson’s writing is fantastic—of those who are happy to send other people to war. She made an important point.
My comments are not necessarily in the order that I would want to make them. Liz Smith made a number of points about education; Stephen Kerr’s point also feeds into this. It is fair enough to demand of the Scottish Government that we should do more in relation to education—as it happens, my constituency has the only school in Scotland that is devoted to the children of military personnel, which is Queen Victoria school in Dunblane. However, in a situation in which the UK Government decides, as it did about five years ago, to move people from Germany to Scotland to Northern Ireland within the space of 18 months, subjecting children to such disruption and three different education systems, I am not sure exactly how the Scottish Government is meant to respond to those demands. There is of course more that we should do.
Jackie Baillie’s points—
I am grateful to Keith Brown for taking my intervention; I agree with him on that point. That said, there were specific issues a few years ago because of barriers that the General Teaching Council for Scotland had put in place that prevented—although not deliberately—some people who would have been valuable additions to the teaching profession from becoming teachers. That cannot be acceptable.
That is a good point, which has been made to me by a number of personnel and, more often, their spouses. That is true, and I am pleased that Liz Smith has acknowledged that work has been done. As she said, it was a GTCS issue rather than a Scottish Government bar, if you like. It is a fair point and is well made.
I will come back to remembrance, but there is so much more that I want to respond to.
Paul Sweeney’s speech was a real departure from the Labour Party’s approach to these debates.
If members want more money to be spent on veterans and if, as seems to be the case, their position is that we should not seek that money from the UK Government, I would like to point out one or two anomalies. The Welsh Government is about to have imposed on it by the UK Government a commissioner for veterans, which the UK Government will fund. We did that first—it was my idea—and we have established and paid for the Scottish Veterans Commissioner. If there are continuing demands as a result of UK Government actions, such as those that I mentioned in relation to children who might get moved around the education system or, as Paul Sweeney mentioned, the calamitous drawdown from Afghanistan that produced an immediate demand on mental health services, we must have a way to plan for that, which is more difficult to do if we are not part of the discussion.
I want to quickly clarify our position. We are certainly not saying that the UK Government should not step up to the plate on the issue; we are merely saying that it is not necessarily a zero-sum game. We must have efforts to innovate at all levels of government to produce the best possible outcome. We are not precious about where that comes from; it is just about getting more resource into the sector.
I acknowledge that point. I note that I am not asking anybody to be on the side of the Scottish Government; rather, I am asking people to be on the side of veterans. If we pursue more money for things that we think are legitimate for veterans because of the actions—sometimes legitimate actions—of the UK Government, I would hope that we would get generalised support for that.
I will say one more thing, because it has not been mentioned and I think that it will become increasingly important. The way that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who were in the armed forces were treated—some of them were drummed out of the service, disgraced and all the rest of it—has had a huge impact on their lives. In particular, how women were treated will be a very big issue. When I went to Veterans First Point in Fife, which David Torrance mentioned, I talked to a woman who was one of the first Wrens to serve on a ship. Her experience was absolutely horrendous and she attributes her post-traumatic stress disorder to it. Such matters will become very important. Having spoken to the Secretary of State for Defence earlier this week, I know that he shares that view.
I will conclude with a couple of comments on remembrance, as it is remembrance day.
Pam Gosal may have left the chamber, but she made an important point about the contribution of people from the British Indian Army. Earlier this year, I was pleased to go up to where my family comes from in the north of Scotland—to Lairg, Brora and Dornoch. We went to a place in Lairg called the tin church, which was used as a makeshift mosque during the second world war by Force K6 soldiers, as they were known, who were mostly from the Punjab area of Pakistan. They came from Pakistan at Churchill’s request for the D day landings, then went to Wales and then Scotland, where they were asked to do mountain arctic warfare training. Many of them died during the process.
As I said, the tin church, which was previously a Free Church of Scotland church, was used by Muslim soldiers as a mosque. The very thought of the call to prayer coming out of the tiny church first thing in the morning in Lairg, with hundreds of shoes sitting outside it is an amazing part of our cultural history.
Pam Gosal was absolutely right. We do not do nearly enough to recognise the contribution that was made by people from Pakistan, from India—of course, it was one army at that time—and from the rest of the Commonwealth and further afield. Two and a half million men volunteered for the Indian army during the second world war, and many millions of others from elsewhere in the Commonwealth also made a huge contribution. We in Scotland are happy to work with the organisation Colourful Heritage, which seeks to ensure that we do not forget the contribution that was made.
This day, 11 November, is the day when we all pay attention at 11 o’clock, with the two minutes’ silence. Sunday will be a huge day as well, and I think that all members said that they intend to be involved then.
I confirm that the Scottish Government values and appreciates our relationships with Scotland’s diverse south Asian communities and our faith communities. We welcome the contribution that is made by service personnel wherever they have come from.
Armistice day and the remembrance day period serve a vital purpose in allowing everyone in Scotland a moment to pause and be thankful. We will all have people in mind at this time, and many members said who that is, for them. For me, it is the four members of my troop who died during the Falklands war, and others. We all remember relatives who served in different parts of the armed forces, too. Remembrance day is a time for reflection, and there should always be time within it to reflect on our personal links to the past.
It is important that we continue to remember those who served and lost their lives in conflicts, not to glorify war—Maggie Chapman was quite right about that—but to recognise the sacrifices that were made to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today and, as members said, to make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again.