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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Bailey Gwynne (Independent Review), Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, Gender Balance (Parliamentary Bureau and Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body), Business Motion, Decision Time, Veterans


Contents


Veterans

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-02578, in the name of Graeme Dey, on Scotland’s veterans. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the report by the Scottish Veterans Commissioner, The Veterans Community: Employability, Skills and Learning; understands that the study looks at the crucial issue of veterans’ employability and makes recommendations that both seek to promote the skills, experience and attributes of veterans more vigorously and remove barriers to civilian employment; acknowledges that this is the third report published by the commissioner; understands that the commissioner believes that there is an increasingly enlightened attitude towards ex-military personnel, and welcomes the part that it hopes this report can play in the formulation of policy pertaining to skills, training and employment for veterans in Angus South and across the country.

17:04  

I thank the many MSPs who have signed the motion that allows us the opportunity to debate this subject. More important, I thank and congratulate the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, for the report that he has produced. It is a thought-provoking, constructive and balanced report which, as he says in the foreword, is aimed

“at helping more members of the veterans community in Scotland to secure meaningful and sustained jobs”

and at providing

“direction for improving employment and learning opportunities for the veterans community in Scotland”.

It is heartening to see the commissioner acknowledging that here in Scotland we are on the path to achieving a situation in which the last remaining disadvantages and barriers are removed, and opportunities in employment, skills development and academia are maximised for veterans.

I also pay tribute to the role that Keith Brown played, as Minister for Transport and Veterans, not only in championing the cause of veterans but in ensuring that we have made progress on so many relevant fronts. Support for our veterans is an issue that undoubtedly attracts cross-party consensus in Parliament, but turning that into something tangible requires leadership. Keith Brown provided that.

I declare an interest in that I am the grandson of a major in the Gordon Highlanders, the nephew of a Royal Army Pay Corps staff sergeant and the cousin of a captain in the Royal Engineers, so I have strong family links to the military. However, although that perhaps provides an insight into the basis of my interest in veterans, that interest was very much fired by a comment that was made at an event that was held here during the previous session of Parliament to explore how we might best support our veterans. During the event, it was suggested that we needed to get away from the service veterans being viewed, from an employment perspective, as “sad, mad or bad.” That remark stuck with me because I cannot imagine how it could not be seen as offensive and—to be frank—unacceptable for such a sweeping generalization to exist for any other group in our society. However, it did exist and perhaps, albeit to a lesser extent, still does. That challenges all of us who have the opportunity to act in this area.

A few months ago, I welcomed into my parliamentary office someone who had served 12 years in the Army prior to undertaking a degree in politics. I did that not as a gesture or a nod towards the subject that we are debating tonight, but because the person was the best candidate for the job. I know that I run the risk of his looking for a pay rise on the back of these comments, but I have to say that I have been hugely impressed. I have added to my staff someone who is hard working, confident, dedicated, proactive and not afraid to offer suggestions on smarter ways of working. He sees a problem: he finds a way of overcoming it. Having condemned making sweeping generalisations a moment or two ago, I should avoid making one of my own; however, on the basis of personal experience—never mind my more general views on the issue—I am happy to encourage any employer to do what I have done and to take on a veteran and to do so not as a gesture, but because of the attitude and skills that they will bring to their role.

“The Veterans Community: Employability, Skills & Learning” is the third report to be produced by the veterans commissioner. The first, which was produced a little less than two years ago, focused on the need to reverse the broad and destructive narrative that viewed veterans through the prism of need and obligation rather than recognising them for their strengths and attributes. The second report focused on housing.

The current report looks at employability and how we can best remove barriers to civilian employment and promote the skills, experiences and attributes of the veterans community. The report acknowledges that we are making big progress in the matter, if we use a 2014 Poppyscotland report as a guide. However, the fact is that former service personnel are 7 per cent less likely than their counterparts in the general population to be in work.

The commissioner identifies that outwith a growing number of major employers that have demonstrated willingness to recruit service leavers and veterans, there remains reluctance in some quarters—the public sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular—to hire from the ex-services community. The report, in essence, calls for a variety of new approaches in order to prioritise access to work for veterans. The timing of that is perhaps unfortunate, in that it comes as we are also looking to support other key groups—for example, carers, through the carer positive initiative. Nevertheless, the report makes a number of recommendations that are worthy of exploration by the Scottish Government, and I understand that a response is due shortly.

I will focus on just a few matters—given the time constraints for the debate, and recognising that colleagues will wish to speak about matters that I have not touched on. The first concerns the establishment of a high-level group to be tasked with taking forward the employability agenda that is outlined in the report and the Scottish Government’s strategy document “Renewing our Commitments”. It is suggested that the veterans employability strategic working group should include the Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland, local government representation, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Veterans Scotland. I hope that the Government will support that proposal.

However, it strikes me that the proposal perhaps misses a trick. If one looks at how the carer positive initiative is being deployed, it will be seen that major employers such as Scottish Gas and Scottish Water are front and centre, and are proactively spreading the message, from an employer’s point of view, of the benefits of employing carers and how such arrangements can be made to work in practice. Any group that is set up for veterans should perhaps have employer participation and the involvement of the Federation of Small Businesses. There is also a call for the Scottish veterans fund, in allocating funding, to prioritise supporting proposals that promote employability and increased opportunities among the veterans community, starting in the fast-approaching 2017-18 financial year.

In keeping with the mantra that veterans and, indeed, their wider families should, rather than simply being catered for, be seen as an asset, it is further suggested that we should be looking to that group in order to help to fill the skills gap. The idea is that we should look strategically at where there are specific shortfalls in skills supply—around education or health, for example—and offer veterans assistance to fill that gap in the same way as the Government has set about retraining and re-employing skilled workers from the oil and gas sector.

The report also considers how we can improve access to further and higher education, and better recognise qualifications and skills that have been gained during service. However, I will leave it to colleagues to explore those areas in detail.

In conclusion, I say that I very much appreciate having had the opportunity to bring this important subject to the chamber, to highlight the great work that has been done in Scotland up to now, and to explore how we can build on it to ensure that we reach the stage at which we are, as a country, fully utilising and appreciating veterans and service leavers for the valuable contribution that they can make to Scotland’s communities and economy.

These past few years have been unsettling for Scotland’s services community, with base and deployment changes; it seems likely that that will continue into the future. Tonight provides an opportunity for Parliament and the Scottish Government to send a message and to offer our servicepeople one certainty: that we value their contribution in the services and will seek to demonstrate that in all sorts of tangible ways when they look to return to civilian life.

Thank you very much, Mr Dey. Speeches should now be kept to four minutes.

17:11  

I take this opportunity to thank Graeme Dey for bringing the debate to the chamber. Positive outcomes for our former members of the armed forces are extremely important.

Although I do not have a military base, or anything of that kind, in my Paisley constituency, there is quite a large community of ex-forces people and veterans there. As members of the Scottish Parliament, we usually have to deal with the cases that are most challenging: the difficult ones, in which people enter our offices and we are their last, best hope for a positive outcome. I will talk about some such situations and cases. Many of the reasons for that are mentioned in “The Veterans Community: Employability, Skills & Learning”. Lack of training and of recognition of the skills gained in the armed forces can lead to ex-servicepeople struggling when they leave the forces. I can understand that: if a young man or woman joins the forces in their teens, it effectively changes their life. They work in an environment unlike any other and tend to be looked after by the service. The culture shock when they come back out to civilian life can, in some cases, be quite extreme.

The people whom I have been dealing with have been young men and women who have left in their mid to late 20s, after doing various stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. They suddenly have to deal with their life in the civilian world—a place where, as the report says, many of their skills are not recognised or, when they are recognised, the person appears, because of their armed forces working practices, to be out of step with other people in their working life.

Those veterans tend to come to us when all else has failed and they need help. For me, one of the biggest problems is that many of the qualifications that veterans get in the armed forces are not recognised in civilian life. I know that work to sort that out is being done by the MOD, but we can surely find a solution to the problem. I could give a list of veterans from Paisley who had to resit their driving tests because their MOD licences were not recognised when they came out of the armed forces. If they are fit to drive Land Rovers through war zones, I think that they will manage okay on our high streets.

There is much to be commended in the report. Recommendation 1—which is the idea of a veterans employability strategic working group—is a great chance for us to move forward. We should provide the opportunity for the Scottish Government, SDS, local government, the MOD’s career transition partnership, the DWP and Veterans Scotland to work together to make the transition much easier for many such young men and women. I find that the problem is sometimes this: when the security of being in the forces is all of a sudden taken away, and when they do not get jobs and move forward, is when things start to break down and ex-servicepeople end up by presenting themselves at our doors, in our constituency offices.

I have a very good relationship with the large community of veterans in Paisley. They tend to congregate around the Comrades Club—which, incidentally, Presiding Officer, I do too. It is one of the few members’ clubs of Legion Scotland that does not have a branch number, just a name—and that name is important. They always wanted it to be the Comrades Club, because it is a place where veterans—and non-veterans, in my case—can socialise. More important is that it is a place where veterans can get advice and support. That type of organisation is not for every veteran—in particular, the younger people whom I have just talked about, who are leaving the forces now. The people in the local Legion club in my area tend to be middle aged and of my demographic. They are not the type of people whom those young ex-servicepeople want to talk to. I think that recommendation 1 could go a long way towards making sure that we do not lose these young people when they leave the armed forces.

We must also not forget about the older veterans, who have been through everything before and who we may have missed helping at some point. I believe that the MOD needs to do a lot more, but we all need to work together and—as Graeme Dey said—help our veterans to acclimatise to civilian life.

17:15  

I thank Graeme Dey for bringing this debate to the chamber, as it is an extremely important debate to have.

I would also like to comment on what George Adam has just said about veterans and where the vulnerable points are. I agree entirely that it is those who have been in the armed forces for four years or under who are the most vulnerable part of the veterans community when they come out. At the other end, we have the older veterans, who experience a significant amount of loneliness—that is something that we still have not been able to crack.

Having been a member of the armed forces myself, I have seen people in operational areas around the world and in the United Kingdom, and I can understand the problems that they have to deal with. I am currently dealing with two cases where those problems are very prevalent—one in particular is a chap with a four-year length of service who is in a desperate situation. However, I am glad to say that through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and other organisations, including the council, we are gradually getting him back on the rails.

Eric Fraser and his team deserve our thanks for creating a well-produced and well-thought-out document that has many good points. There are points that we will probably discuss this evening and that people may have views on. I was glad to see that the Government has decided to extend the commissioner’s stay in his post for at least another year, which is great news for the whole veterans community in Scotland.

The cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community, which I am fortunate to convene, was lucky enough to have the veterans commissioner attend our last meeting in December to talk about his report. I will not go into the report in too much detail, although I encourage members to get a copy and read it themselves; I know that several members of our group have done exactly that. Instead, I will highlight a couple of the key points in the report that I believe are key to the debate.

The commissioner points out in the report—and correctly so—that employment is one of the most important factors in determining whether someone has a positive transition from a military life to a civilian one. For many veterans, the part of that transition that they will struggle with most is finding employment. However, this is not a group of people who, for the most part, should have any real difficulty in finding work. As the commissioner says in the report,

“this diverse group is largely made up of intelligent, experienced, reliable and motivated people, who are ideally placed to take on many of the highly-skilled and rewarding jobs that are available across Scotland.”

Veterans are an incredibly well-trained group; many in the armed forces now do some form of highly skilled technical work—the sort of skills that businesses are screaming out for—as part of their service, and would be perfect to fill the skills gap that we know Scotland has, which is why I am glad to see that the issue features in one of the recommendations in the report. However, it was worrying to read that the commissioner encountered

“a degree of reluctance to hire”

veterans, particularly among

“public sector organisations and ... small and medium-sized enterprises”.

As those include some of the largest employers in Scotland, that is an important point, and a particular cause for concern.

In my experience, there is a lack of understanding of our armed forces among some levels of management due to families become more divorced from the armed forces over the generations and therefore not really discussing the armed forces or even being supportive of them. That leads to people in human resource management, for example, who are looking at skills requirements and who have a veteran in front of them not quite understanding what he is made of.

There are a lot of things that we need to do. That is why the work of Business in the Community and SaluteMyJob is so welcome—I commend it to members. They are currently creating a toolkit to help businesses tap into this underused resource, which they will launch here in the Parliament in March.

I also welcome the commissioner’s recommendation that veterans issues should receive more scrutiny from Parliament, with the aim of raising the profile of veterans issues among members. I am glad that the cabinet secretary has already welcomed that recommendation, and I hope that he will follow through with an annual report on the implementation of the commissioner’s findings.

The commissioner has set the Parliament and the Scottish Government a series of challenging recommendations that I hope to be able to play my part in pushing for, because I firmly believe that implementation of those recommendations would deliver massive benefits not just for the veterans community but for wider Scottish society.

I gave you a little leeway with time, Mr Corry, as you convene the cross-party group on veterans and because of your background.

I call Jackie Baillie, who will be followed by David Torrance—if he presses his request-to-speak button. There we go.

17:20  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I wonder whether I will get extra time, too, as one of the deputy conveners of the cross-party group, but I will not push my luck.

You never miss a chance, Ms Baillie.

I congratulate Graeme Dey on securing the debate. As a member of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community, I very much welcome the opportunity to debate some of the issues that affect veterans. The report from the veterans commissioner makes a series of recommendations, some of which have been touched on; I will try not to repeat those comments.

However, at the heart of the report is the recommendation that George Adam mentioned, which is for a veterans employability strategic working group that would bring together all the key partners, such as Veterans Scotland, the Scottish Government, local government, Skills Development Scotland and, importantly, the MOD. The working group’s agenda would be about overseeing and co-ordinating activity to generate opportunities for employment and improve employability and skills. I particularly hope that the Government will take that recommendation on board.

There are numerous suggestions in the report, from improving literacy and numeracy to making transitions easier, and I commend them all to members. It is right to highlight the importance of transition. We should not fail veterans, who have served our country so well. When they are able to plan their exit from the forces, that planning should ensure that they have a career destination at the end of the process.

I will highlight one project that does not impact directly on veterans, although it has merit and has had positive results. It is the Women’s Enterprise Scotland business creation project, which is about inspiring and motivating armed forces spouses and partners to start their own business. With a small sum of £20,000 awarded to it from the armed forces covenant, the project is also supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the business gateway, the Army Families Federation and HIVE, the information network for all members of the service community. The results have been fantastic. I had the pleasure of meeting two of the dozens of women who have been on the course. They each took a hobby that they did not think had much merit and turned it into a business. Both are now trading successfully and contributing to the local economy, never mind the household income, and both businesses are growing rapidly. Let us see imaginative projects such as that for veterans and their families.

I want to ask about the process that will follow. The report was published in November or December last year. Although the Scottish Government clearly needs time to consider the detail of the recommendations, I had hoped that we would have seen early acceptance of the principles. I am ever hopeful that the minister will say something positive tonight about the timescale for so doing. In particular, I highlight the idea of reporting back to Parliament annually. I ask the minister to encourage the cabinet secretary to consider committing to an annual Government debate, rather than simply laying a report. That debate could look at the range of issues affecting veterans—including health, housing and employment—and take a holistic view of what is working well and what needs to improve. I suspect that there would be support from across the chamber for such an initiative. I believe that it is only by having a sustained focus on veterans issues that we will see the necessary improvements.

Like many of us, I tuned into “Good Morning Scotland” this morning, and one of the lead items on the news bulletin was that Scottish veterans are at greater risk of deprivation than veterans elsewhere in the UK. Combat Stress, the mental health charity for veterans, surveyed around 3,000 people and found that half of Scottish veterans live in the most deprived three areas of the country. We have long understood that a lack of employment and low income are the main causes of poverty. In recognising that, we need to accept that, if we are to change the statistics, we need to invest in raising skill levels and improving employability. Getting a job is the best way out of poverty, and we owe it to our ex-servicemen and women and their families to do all that we can to ensure that they have access to employment when they leave the services. That is not too much to ask, given their courage and selflessness in serving their country.

I thank Graeme Dey once again for bringing the debate to the chamber.

You gleaned a little extra time for your deputy convener role, Ms Baillie.

I call David Torrance. Mr Torrance, do you have some position to declare?

17:25  

None at all.

I thank Graeme Dey for bringing the motion to Parliament for debate, and for raising awareness of the significance, strength and qualities of Scotland’s veterans.

The veteran-civilian relationship is complex and often challenging. Throughout history, veterans have served their country and returned with an expectation that the country would ease their transition back into civilian life. That has not always happened, of course. The UK Government spends billions of pounds a year on the military—2.7 per cent of its gross domestic product—but only a tiny fraction of that is spent ensuring that veterans are employed, or, if they are not employed, that they build skills or receive training to ease their transition back into society.

I welcome the publication by the Scottish veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser, of the report, which studies the crucial issue of veteran employability in Scotland. I hope that the Scottish Government and my fellow MSPs embrace the report’s findings and recommendations, as we have an obligation as policy makers to invest in programmes that will help veterans adapt to social, political and economic life. The area in which that can most powerfully and successfully be demonstrated is employment, as the report on employability, skills and learning clearly exhibits.

I highlight the paradox that veterans are able to provide us with protection but struggle to secure employment at an acceptable rate upon returning to the civilian world. The Ministry of Defence recently published statistics that highlight the problem and show that former military personnel are less likely to be in work and more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts among the general Scottish population. Although the numbers show a significant improvement when compared to studies conducted in 2014, they continue to highlight the gap between veterans and non-veterans.

I make special mention of some of the organisations and programmes that help veterans and support them back into employment: SaluteMyJob, Forth Valley Chamber of Commerce, Veterans Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish veterans employment and training service, to name a few. It is crucial that those partners not only secure meaningful and sustained employment for veterans but aid personal fulfilment and development. In my constituency, veterans first point Fife, which was established only last year, consists of veterans along with peer-support workers, clinicians and therapists, who provide information, support, social networking and understanding to promote wellbeing.

I also highlight the importance of addressing the challenges that many female veterans face. We need to recognise that women veterans experience military service in different ways from men. Without intervention, those and other issues can put women veterans at greater risk of unemployment. Therefore, we need to address the individual needs of women through specialised programmes.

The Scottish political agenda emphasises that education is a tool for ensuring a certain level of veteran employability, as barriers to significant and sustainable employment are intensified by the absence of educational attainment. Veteran higher education is often met with resistance due to monetary challenges, lack of acceptance and stress about competing with younger students. In most cases, opting out of higher education is an economic decision. As a response, the Scottish veterans fund has provided crucial financial support in the form of grants. Apprenticeships, mentoring and sponsorship opportunities are not only available but actively encouraged to help to establish networks, while our sense of community allows for an ambitious and generous charitable sector on which many veterans rely.

Although the Scottish Government is supportive of veterans, there remains work to be done to shift the stigma surrounding them that still exists among employers, the media and the public. There are often assumptions and stereotypes regarding veterans that can make some employers reluctant to hire them. However, veterans are assets. Their skills can easily be transferred into a variety of different employment opportunities. I am confident that we can mend the veteran-civilian relationship by guaranteeing that the credentials and talents of veterans are more extensively acknowledged not only by employers but, as importantly, by Scottish society in general.

I again thank Graeme Dey for securing this important debate. I hope that the Scottish veterans commissioner’s recommendations are taken on board.

17:29  

Before I thank Graeme Dey for bringing this debate to the chamber, Presiding Officer, I would just like to say how much I enjoyed your attendance at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee the other day. I hope that that gets me another minute of speaking time.

You have just lost a minute.

Before I go any further, I would like to declare an interest. Despite my youthful looks, I classify as a veteran because I spent 12 years in the Army. My son, in time, when he has completed his service, will also be a veteran. The label of veteran is one that I wear with pride, and I believe that it gives me the right to hold strong opinions on the subject that we are discussing.

Before I turn my comments to the report prepared by Eric Fraser, I would like to look at an important issue facing veterans that does not form part of the report. I want to take members back in time to London in 1982, and specifically to 20 July. My regimental colleagues, who had served with distinction in the Falklands, had returned to the UK and life had started to follow a more normal routine. Soldiers from the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, wearing uniforms from the 19th century, riding Irish horses, set off from Hyde Park barracks to change the guard. Little did they know that a man watched them with but one intention: their destruction.

He and his fellow terrorists had packed 25Ib of gelignite into the boot of a car on the route that the guard took. To add to the blast, he had packed 30Ib of 6in nails around the device. When he detonated it, he instantly killed three of my fellow soldiers—another died three days later. The explosion also killed seven horses. Those were not the only murders that day. Seven bandsmen playing a concert in Regent’s Park were also killed.

Danny McNamee, a member of the Irish Republican Army, was convicted and served time in jail for the bombing until he was released under the Good Friday agreement. However, he was not alone. John Downey, another IRA member, was charged in 2013, but his trial collapsed as the Police Service of Northern Ireland had sent him a letter, in error, assuring him that he would not face criminal charges.

Why do I tell that story? It is because, today, Northern Ireland veterans are still facing investigations and I believe that it is time that the UK Government stopped those actions, which are often no more than witch hunts supported by ambulance-chasing lawyers. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are not criminals; they are normal people—people who would defend our country with their lives, if necessary. Stopping that persecution would allow those veterans to live productive and full lives.

I welcome Eric Fraser’s report. I know that the most difficult time for service personnel is when they leave. Many are unclear about what they have to offer and have lost the discipline, routine and support that the services provided them with. To that end, recommendation 6 in the report is important, and I urge the Government to ensure that all opportunities are made known to service leavers as early as possible in order to allow a seamless and supported transition from service to civilian life.

The recommendation recognises that veterans’ partners also bring skills, such as teaching and nursing, which are in demand across Scotland. They should not be forgotten. However, as has been mentioned before, to make that approach really work, it will be important to ensure that housing is available in the areas where job vacancies are identified.

Turning to the section headed “Looking to the Future and Leadership”, I am sure that we all agree with recommendations 17, 18 and 19. It is important that Parliament monitors the issues facing veterans and reaches out to ensure that Scotland uses the skills that veterans undoubtedly have.

I commend the report, and I reiterate my plea that all of us remember that service personnel are team players; they played for our team and often put their lives on the line. It is right that we stand up for them and it is necessary that we protect them, as they protected us when they were asked to. We should protect them from those who seek to hound them. We should all support the recommendations in the report and work with the UK and Scottish Governments to do the best for our veterans. They deserve no less.

17:34  

I warmly congratulate Graeme Dey on securing this debate and Eric Fraser on his excellent report.

I stand as someone who, like a previous speaker, has been nominated as vice-convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community and as the MSP for Moray, which I suspect has more Scottish veterans per head of population than any other part of the country, given the concentrated nature of the bases—RAF Lossiemouth and the Kinloss barracks, formerly RAF Kinross—and the size of the area.

Everyone who lives in Moray knows Scottish veterans. I have many friends who have served in the forces and we all know people who are either still serving in the forces or who have done so. Our veterans play a huge role in the community—they are an integral part of it. They help to underpin the local economy and they contribute to life in many other ways.

I welcome what the report says about the role that our veterans can play in plugging skills gaps. We should view our veterans as an enormous resource and we should help every man and woman who has served in the forces to fulfil their potential. The report refers to the fact that oil workers are being recruited as teachers. In Moray and elsewhere in north-east Scotland at the moment, there is a shortage of teachers. As highlighted in the report, I would like to see more done to attract veterans to retrain as teachers, which is one way in which they could help to plug some of the skills gaps in their local economy.

When we talk about Scottish veterans, we should also speak about their spouses and partners, who play a huge role in the local community. As Jackie Baillie said, if we give people the opportunity to work, train or develop their employability, it is a way of giving them self-worth and self-esteem and of allowing them to contribute to society and the economy and to lead productive lives. That is why this debate is so important.

Combat Stress was in the news today, talking about the deprivation experienced by many veterans. Scottish veterans are more likely to experience deprivation than veterans elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I am sure that Scottish ministers will want to look into that. Factors such as that vindicate the decision to create a Scottish veterans commissioner, who will address many of those issues. Parliament should take pride in that. On Combat Stress’s website, there is a long list of the difficulties that people can have in making the transition from military to civilian life. People can have work and relationship problems; they can feel numb and empty; they can feel suicidal; they might avoid people and places; and they might have panic attacks or feel isolated. That is why it is so important to support training and employment opportunities.

This month, Sacro is starting a veterans mentoring service in my constituency. Debi Weir, who has been employed by Sacro to run the project, sent me an email listing her new responsibilities. She says:

“The service is for military veterans who are currently in or are on the periphery of the criminal justice system. The service will work closely with the veteran to put an intensive support plan in place where strategies can be developed to cope with their specific needs. The aim of the service is to enable the service user to enjoy sustainable, independent living.”

There are many good projects out there. I am sure that the Scottish veterans commissioner will want to look at those in more detail in future and that ministers will want to learn more about projects such as the one in Jackie Baillie’s constituency, the one that I mentioned in my constituency and those in other members’ constituencies, so that we can help to encourage people to have productive lives and deal with the challenges that they face in making the transition from military to civilian life.

The veterans commissioner says in the foreword to his report:

“with the right leadership, attitudes and investment, we can do the very best by our veterans community. As its members come to be more fully recognised as valuable contributors to our society and economy, the benefits—for all of us—will be significant and worthwhile.”

That is a laudable aim that we all share. I hope that the minister will continue to do all that he can—it is also the responsibility of the UK Government to help and support Scottish veterans—to bring that vision to reality, and to help people to move on with their lives and contribute to society.

17:38  

I join other members in thanking Graeme Dey for bringing the debate to the chamber, and thank colleagues throughout the chamber for their considered and thoughtful contributions. I see that we have some veterans in the chamber.

There can be few families in Scotland without the experience of someone who has served in our armed forces. Graeme Dey said that he is the grandson of someone who served as a major in the armed forces. I am the grandson of Private Hamish Hepburn, who served in the Seaforth Highlanders in North Africa, Italy and France during the second world war.

George Adam rightly made the point that there is a strong veterans community in his constituency. I think that that would be true for all of us. Richard Lochhead made the important point that certain communities, such as his Moray constituency, have particularly strong veterans communities.

In February last year, the veterans minister Keith Brown published “Renewing our Commitments”, which highlighted many of our successes in supporting our military communities and veterans, and set out future priorities, including the ambition to make Scotland the destination of choice for service leavers.

I contend—I think that this view is shared by members across the chamber—that veterans and their families are a true asset to our society. We have set out in our labour market strategy a vision of a strong labour market that drives our country’s economy. Veterans clearly have many of the transferable skills that civilian employers can draw upon to help meet that ambition.

In 2014, the Government appointed the UK’s first veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser. I echo Graeme Dey in thanking Eric Fraser for the work that he has done in that role. Since his appointment he has produced three very useful and informative reports to help us shape policy thinking. His most recent report, which is on employability, skills and learning, highlights a number of good examples and offers suggestions for how employers can use the talents and skills of those who have served in the armed forces.

We know of the need to support those who have served. The outcomes for many are good, but for far too many they are not so good. We know the many benefits of employing veterans. David Torrance rightly said that veterans should be seen as an asset and Richard Lochhead rightly said that veterans should be seen as a resource. Graeme Dey highlighted those points when he described his experience of employing a veteran in his office. He suggested that mentioning that member of staff might lead to the need to offer him a pay increase. Graeme Dey might want to reflect on that. I am sure that members across the chamber could perhaps exert some pressure to achieve such a positive outcome for that member of staff.

Members raised a number of specific issues. Graeme Dey, Maurice Corry and George Adam talked about the need to better recognise qualifications that have been accrued during the time of serving and make them applicable in civilian life. We are examining that at a strategic level and discussions are under way now on how we can better ensure the transfer into civilian life of skills that have been acquired while serving.

Graeme Dey and Maurice Corry raised a point about encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to recruit veterans. I very much concur with the point that Mr Corry made—doing that is essential. We know that 85 per cent of employers across Scotland are SMEs, so if we are not working with that sector we are certainly missing a trick. Of course, the Scottish Government funds Scotland’s employer recruitment incentive, which provides employers with funding to take on young people, and early service leavers and veterans who are aged 16 to 29 are eligible for support through that mechanism. Perhaps we need to make sure that that is better understood.

An issue was raised about employers being better supported more generally, so that they could have the confidence to take on employees. David Torrance mentioned that SaluteMyJob and Business in the Community are developing a toolkit to support employers to recruit. We expect to launch that towards the end of March.

Maurice Corry mentioned the public sector. The report has a specific recommendation on the national health service. It is worth putting it on record that NHS Lanarkshire has developed a comprehensive framework to help recruit managers and candidates from the armed forces. Work is under way and we need to see how it can be spread further.

I reassure Maurice Corry and Jackie Baillie that, since the publication of the commissioner’s latest report, the cabinet secretary has accepted the commissioner’s recommendation to report to Parliament on an annual basis on progress towards the recommendations made in all the reports. I heard very clearly a request from Ms Baillie for an annual debate. That is an innovative suggestion and I will take it back to the cabinet secretary for him to reflect on it.

In response to the clear concern that we respond timeously to the report, I can let Ms Baillie know that a response is indeed imminent. The cabinet secretary has agreed to respond to the recommendations in this latest report before the next meeting of the cross-party working group on the armed forces community and veterans on 8 March. Generally, we have received the report very positively and welcome its tenor.

Many of the points raised in the report reflect work that is already being undertaken within the Scottish Government. For example, since 2008 the Scottish Government has committed over £830,000 in grants to 125 projects working with veterans across Scotland, through the Scottish veterans fund.

Over the next three years, the fund will provide £600,000 to help a wide range of projects to support veterans, including ones on employability. The fund includes a three-year £240,000 contribution from Standard Life, to whom we are very grateful, to support a specific stream on veteran employability.

We are engaging with employers across Scotland. We have been working with Business in the Community and SaluteMyJob to encourage businesses of all sizes, right across the country, to consider employing service leavers and veterans. I am also aware that there are a number of employers who are already engaged in good practice. I have been able to visit some. I am also aware, as Ms Baillie knows because we debated the Women’s Enterprise Scotland initiatives more generally, of the particular work that she mentioned.

There is much good work under way. I recognise the importance of the report and assure all members, and Mr Dey especially, given that he brought the debate to the chamber, that we are looking at the report very seriously and will do all that we can to make sure that Scotland is indeed the destination of choice for service leavers and their families.

Meeting closed at 17:47.