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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 11 September 2019

Agenda: Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, Portfolio Question Time, Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, Citizens Assembly of Scotland, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight


Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18355, in the name of Alexander Stewart, on the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) on reaching its 100th anniversary in 2019; understands that the organisation was formed by Lord Trenchard one year after the formation of the Royal Air Force with King George VI as Patron; acknowledges that it was previously known as the Royal Air Force Welfare Fund due to one of its objectives being the raising of a memorial to airmen who died in the First World War; notes that it is the Royal Air Force’s leading welfare charity, providing financial, emotional and practical support to serving and former members of the RAF, regardless of their rank, in addition to their partners and dependants; acknowledges that, under its current Patron, the Queen, the RAFBF was awarded a Royal Charter in 1999, which was updated in 2008 by the addition of a new charitable object permitting the organisation’s work towards supporting the wellbeing and morale of serving RAF personnel; understands that, in its first year, welfare expenditure was £919, with the first welfare assistance being a shilling for a night’s lodging to give the recipient a chance to seek work; considers that today the charity provides a far broader range of support to more than 55,000 members of the “RAF Family”, with a reported expenditure in 2017 of £18.8 million; acknowledges that the RAFBF also engages with many civilian companies, councils and local authorities across the Mid Scotland and Fife region, Scotland and the UK as a whole, and commends the charity and its staff and volunteers for their tireless work for the welfare and wellbeing of others.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to have, and am grateful for, the privilege of opening this poignant members’ business debate. I pay tribute to those from the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund who have chosen to attend the debate and support us from the public gallery.

Almost exactly a year after King George V authorised the creation of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard, with King George VI as patron, formed the organisation previously known as the Royal Air Force Memorial Fund. One of the RAF Memorial Fund’s objectives was the raising of a memorial to airmen who died in the first world war. This magnificent monument, which was completed in 1923, can be seen today on Victoria Embankment in London.

In the new welfare fund’s first year, expenditure was £919, which was a considerable sum of money at the time. The fund’s first welfare assistance was a shilling a night for lodgings to give the recipients a chance to seek work. Other examples of early assistance included money to provide a beneficiary with the tools of their trade, and the repairs to a pair of working boots.

Nowadays, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is the RAF’s leading welfare charity. It provides financial, emotional and practical support to serving and former members of the RAF, regardless of their rank, as well as to their partners and dependants. Her Majesty the Queen is the current patron of the fund, which was awarded a royal charter in 1999. That was updated in 2008 with the addition of a new charitable objective permitting the organisation’s work supporting the wellbeing and morale of serving RAF personnel. In Scotland, for example, the fund spent more than £1 million directly supporting 290 people.

The fund provides support ranging from housing to care home top-up fees, as well as mobility adaptations in the home, so that individuals can live more independently. It has also supported thousands of veterans, with grants provided to other organisations such as the Scottish Veterans Residences, the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, the RAF Widows Association and Reading Force.

For serving personnel in Scotland, last year the RAF Benevolent Fund spent £148,000 supporting families at RAF Lossiemouth through individual grants and station grants. It has supported the station’s family day, the refurbishment of the Circle community centre, a new play park, and the station’s cinema club. Personnel at Lossiemouth have also benefited from a whole range of the fund’s services, which are available across all stations in the United Kingdom.

The high level of assistance given to our Scottish veterans and serving RAF personnel is a small snapshot of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund’s worldwide capability and capacity. Last year, the RAF Benevolent Fund spent more than £20.9 million supporting an astonishing 53,000 members of the RAF family right across the world. The fund also engages with many civilian companies and organisations, including the Church of Scotland, as well as councils and local authorities across my region of Mid Scotland and Fife, all over Scotland and throughout the UK.

Even with this high level of multifaceted work, a great many people could still benefit from the fund if they knew that it was available, and it is important to identify those people. It is for that reason that the RAF Benevolent Fund has launched a major new campaign in its centenary year. It is urging the country to help it to repay the debt that we owe to the RAF veterans, and their families, who have served and who now require help and assistance. They put on the uniform for our country when we needed them, so it is only right and proper that they know that, in their hour of need, they will be supported and looked after by the fund.

The campaign, which was launched at the end of June this year, is entitled “Join the Search. Change a Life.” It calls on us all to reach out to the men and women who served as regulars or reservists, or who did their national service in the RAF. We all know that many people from that generation feel too proud to ask for support, but it is vital that we identify those people and give them the support that they might require. It may be that people simply do not know that the RAF Benevolent Fund is there to support them, so it is imperative that we identify people before it is too late.

Since the start of the campaign, more than 5,700 people have been in touch, of whom 4,300 have asked about specific welfare needs. It is vital that people get welfare support. They might need housing adaptations to help them in their bathroom or kitchen, or to get in and out of the house, and it is important that they get the opportunity to live independently and to develop.

The top three identified needs are financial assistance, or help to understand the support to which they are entitled for their welfare and their opportunity to develop; help to live independently, which is important; and help in the prevention of social isolation and loneliness. Many people are affected by those issues, and we have identified the problems many times in debates in the chamber across many Scottish Government portfolios. Requests for help have come from as far away as Canada and South Africa. Research has shown that at least one in three of us knows someone who has served in the RAF and who might want to seek support.

Much of the truly phenomenal work that the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is involved in goes unseen. However, I take this opportunity to whole-heartedly congratulate and commend not only the RAF Benevolent Fund as an organisation, but its staff and volunteers. They are the ones who go the extra mile to provide support and who make a difference on the ground in communities and constituencies. That work will ensure that the welfare and wellbeing of the entire RAF family is looked after for the future.


Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

I am delighted to speak in the debate, and I congratulate the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund on reaching its 100th anniversary. I also congratulate Alexander Stewart on securing the debate.

Given the previous work that I have done with veterans, I am very aware of, and greatly appreciate, the work that is done by the RAF Benevolent Fund. It has been instrumental in providing excellent emotional, financial and practical support for serving members and veterans, and for their families. The debate gives us the opportunity to reflect on the past 100 years, on the role that the RAF has played in situations of war and conflict and, more recently, on the RAF’s deployment to deal with natural disasters and emergencies.

We should reflect on the bravery, strength and determination that every member of the RAF has shown, and continues to show, in deeply difficult and demanding circumstances. I recall, back in 1982, waiting in San Carlos Bay in the Falklands for the next air raid warning red and for the latest foray from some very brave Argentinian pilots, and I remember the relief that was shown when the RAF came to our defence in very difficult circumstances.

As today’s motion notes, one of the first actions of the RAF Benevolent Fund was to do the thing that is so important: provide support to people in difficult circumstances. Support is given not only when people have left the armed forces, but when people are considering whether they want a career in the armed forces. It is right that the fund does that, and that we as a society continue to recognise the personal sacrifices that servicemen and servicewomen continue to make every day.

Perhaps one of the most daring examples of the RAF’s courage during the cold war and the Soviet blockade of Berlin was when its planes were part of heroic efforts to provide western-controlled Berlin with supplies. The RAF transferred more than 400,000 tonnes of cargo into the city, flew more than 30 million miles and spent more than 200,000 hours in the sky.

I am very proud that the Scottish Government’s commitment to the armed forces and veterans’ community is a matter of public record. The appointment of a Scottish veterans commissioner was the first of its kind anywhere in the UK, and Scotland’s mental health and related provision for veterans is acknowledged as some of the best in the UK by the charity, Forces in Mind Trust. In addition, the Scottish veterans fund has provided over £1.4 million in grants to more than 150 projects, helping veterans transition to civilian life.

We know that some service members’ sense of duty extends well past their time in the forces. As Alexander Stewart rightly said, they often feel that they are undeserving of the benefits and entitlements to which they are due, which means that the benefit uptake is often not at the level that we would want to see. Therefore, the role of the RAF Benevolent Fund in providing quality advice to serving members and veterans about welfare benefits has been crucial in ensuring that they get the support that they are entitled to and deserve.

The benevolent fund’s support for and funding of the armed services advice project is of particular note. The project is very strong in Stirling, where it has worked tirelessly with a number of other organisations to improve veterans’ access to entitlements.

I, too, enjoyed celebrating the RAF’s remarkable success in a debate in this chamber in 2014. I am particularly encouraged to note the benevolent fund’s centenary campaign, called “Join the Search. Change a Life.” It aims to reach up to 100,000 veterans and families that it estimates currently miss out on support. Such inspiring campaigns can truly make life-changing differences to individuals, and are illustrative of how the fund has positively impacted the lives of so many, for so long.

Alexander Stewart mentioned that one in three of us knows somebody who has served in the RAF. I encourage everyone to make sure that any RAF veterans that they know are aware of the campaign. They will be aware of the RAF Benevolent Fund, because it is such an integral part of the RAF and its significant contribution to the lives of many veterans.

Veterans should also be aware that, as a society, we have a duty to provide for and empower those who have given so much, and the RAF Benevolent Fund’s enduring commitment to meeting that over the past 100 years marks it out as a very important organisation for veterans. It is right that we celebrate that.

I extend my personal congratulations to the RAF Benevolent Fund on 100 years of commendable work. I wish it all the best for the next 100 years and I hope that it will continue to help veterans across Scotland and the UK.


Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank my colleague Alexander Stewart for lodging his motion. It is a great privilege to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in the chamber today, especially as I am a veteran.

The RAF, as the oldest independent air force, has long been a staple of Britain’s security and strength. Its servicemen and women, as with other armed forces personnel, show extraordinary bravery and commitment to our country on our behalf. I am sure that all of us today are immensely grateful for their efforts.

It is no surprise that with their duties come pressures and burdens. With frequent moves, long working hours and separation through deployment, the RAF family as a whole—veterans, along with their loved ones—often needs help and support. Indeed, the RAF Benevolent Fund has estimated that as many as 100,000 RAF veterans, alongside their families, are in urgent need of possibly life-changing support. That support—whether emotional, practical or financial—is what the benevolent fund has provided and will continue to provide.

At its heart, the fund’s central vision is that no member of the RAF family will ever face adversity alone. Earlier this week, I was delighted to visit RAF Lossiemouth, where I met Typhoon squadron crews, who are our front-line team working 24/7. They were very impressive, and the families who support them do an incredible job.

The RAF Benevolent Fund offers a truly impressive breadth of welfare, which spans generations and covers the old and the young. That includes contributions towards housing and adaptions, youth facilities, care services and respite breaks.

The benevolent fund takes great care to offer, among its many services, a special strand of support to RAF couples. Those couples can face additional challenges to their relationship, which are often tested through long distance. Through the benevolent fund’s partnership with the charity Relate, its online course, called building stronger families, offers welcome guidance. It is designed to help couples navigate through common issues before they become detrimental to their relationship. So far, more than 5,600 servicemen and women, along with their families, have used that relationship support service.

In addition, this month sees the beginning of wellbeing and employment workshops for partners of RAF personnel. The workshops, which are organised by mentors who can share insight into RAF life, encourage partners to recognise their skills and strengths and the mental barriers that they feel hold them back.

Children are at the centre of RAF families. It is important to point out that they often face a unique set of difficulties. Life on an RAF base, such as the one that I saw yesterday, can understandably feel isolated, especially for those of a young age. It is certainly not easy for children to be separated from a parent for the long term while continually starting new friendships. To lessen those challenges, the RAF Benevolent Fund has channelled funds into airplay, which is a youth support programme that is geared for RAF children and is run in connection with the charity Action for Children. The programme encompasses childcare centres, play parks and activities that are based on or around RAF stations, complete with trained youth workers. That work allows for childcare that favours affordability, opening the way for stability and support.

The RAF Benevolent Fund is perhaps seen at its most compassionate in the case of injury to or death of a loved one. In the whirlwind of a situation that people may not have planned for, the RAF Benevolent Fund comes alongside and offers much-needed support, whether it be financial help with funeral costs or purchasing an accessible house, or assisting with further education. The RAF Benevolent Fund has shown its sincerity and commitment to the RAF family. At such times of difficulty, the charity gives valuable time for loved ones to rebuild their lives.

The work of the RAF Benevolent Fund is incredibly far reaching. The charity prizes safeguarding family relationships, encourages employability and aims to prevent feelings of isolation. It strengthens mental and physical wellbeing and boosts morale. I find it hard to imagine that, without the RAF Benevolent Fund, RAF families would be as cared for as they are. I am sure that I am not alone in the chamber in hoping for another 100 years of this inspiring charity.


David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Alexander Stewart on securing this important debate and on his comprehensive and thoughtful speech.

Like most members who are in the chamber, my interest in the debate is personal. My father did his national service with the RAF at Kinloss as a fresh-faced 18-year-old more than 70 years ago. During my last year of school in the Highlands, I thought seriously about joining the RAF, but instead I chose the less hazardous conflict zone that comes with a career in politics. However, during my time in Westminster, which started in 1997, I relished the opportunity to serve with the RAF for two terms as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I welcomed the setting up of the scheme in the Scottish Parliament earlier in this session, and I hope that members from across the chamber will volunteer to take part in it.

During my involvement with the Westminster scheme, I had direct experience of RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth and a memorable week in Basra in Iraq, which I will say more about later. During that time, I flew in a Tornado fast jet, a Nimrod maritime aircraft and a Sea King search and rescue helicopter. On my last day with the RAF, the Sea King that I was involved with had to attend an emergency in Glen Coe. I vividly remember flying a few hundred feet above Loch Ness on the way there and observing at first hand the bravery, expertise and professionalism of the pilots and the winch crew as they saved the life of a young Swiss mountaineer who had fallen and suffered severe facial injuries. My experience was a brief snapshot, but it gave me tremendous admiration for the armed forces and for veterans.

As others, not least Keith Brown, have said, we should remember that people do not stay in the armed forces forever and that our responsibility to people who have served our country does not stop when they leave the service. The covenant that we make with those in the service community does not stop when they rejoin civilian life. That is why we should celebrate and recognise the centenary of the RAF Benevolent Fund.

As we have heard, the fund’s vision is that

“No member of the RAF Family will ever face adversity alone.”

The fund has analysed the challenges and stress facing servicemen and women, which include frequent station moves, the separation from family, the distance from close relatives, irregular shifts and of course the stress of active service. I saw that at first hand when I spent a week living in the RAF compound at Basra airport in Iraq, when I experienced day-to-day living conditions in a post-war zone. Living in a tent in the heat of a middle east desert where there were still concerns about mortar attacks put the stresses of civilian life into context for me.

The fund has identified the most common problems that are faced by serving staff: the marriage and relationship difficulties, partners’ problems finding suitable work, not knowing about service benefits, and anxiety and depression. The imaginative reaction to its survey results includes financing pilot station engagement workers; increasing the employability and wellbeing of RAF employees’ partners; funding respite holiday breaks for families; and addressing mental wellbeing through accessing mindfulness apps.

Winston Churchill, who has a strong claim for originating the RAF, made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the RAF Benevolent Fund in September 1951, just a month before he became Prime Minister for the second time. I think that this is the first time that I have quoted Churchill. He said:

“This fund exists solely to help members of the Royal Air Force; men and women in time of need, and their families or dependents when they are in trouble. The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is part of the conscience of the British nation. A nation without a conscience is a nation without a soul. A nation without a soul is a nation that cannot live.”

We owe a debt of gratitude and honour to the RAF and the role that it plays in the defence of the nation. The RAF Benevolent Fund is a powerful aid to the RAF family when they are in need. Let us never forget its vision: that no member of that family will ever face adversity alone.


The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

I congratulate Alexander Stewart on bringing forward the motion for debate and his eloquent speech, and I thank members for their contributions.

Debates in this chamber on our armed forces and veterans community have traditionally highlighted a cross-party consensus around wanting the best for those who have served or are currently serving, and I am pleased that that has been the case once again, this afternoon.

There is no doubt that veterans and their families are a great asset to our communities, making a valuable contribution to life here in Scotland. Equally, there is no doubt as to the importance of the work that is done here by our veterans charities in supporting the armed forces and veterans community. I have visited and met many of them since becoming Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans 14 months ago, and I am continually impressed with how, every day, they do everything that they can to make a difference to those who require their support.

Today’s debate highlights a particularly good example of an organisation that does just that. As we have heard, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which was founded in 1919, one year after the formation of the RAF. The assistance that it provides to the RAF community is commendable, through the likes of welfare breaks, grants and advice on support that is available for those who have care needs—I know that its efforts are more than appreciated by serving and former RAF personnel, and their families. I welcome the focus of Maurice Corry’s speech on the fund’s work for the families of serving personnel. As colleagues know, the narrative that I have sought to create encompasses the wider families, not just serving personnel or veterans.

I had the pleasure of meeting the fund’s area director, Gavin Davey, at the start of August, when we discussed the charity’s work for veterans, which it is keen to promote among members here in Parliament. As we have heard, RAFBF has launched a three-year centenary project to increase the number of people whom it supports from 53,000 in 2018 to more than 100,000 per annum by 2021. Although the television adverts are quite striking—they are voiced, I think, by James Bolam—I believe that all of us, especially MSPs who have a veterans’ locus, have a role to play in awareness raising and helping the fund to achieve its ambitious target. That would achieve a widely shared goal of getting greater help to those who need it, but who may not realise the opportunity that exists through the fund.

Last month’s meeting proved insightful in a number of ways, but Gavin revealed a particular fact that really stood out to me: some 20 per cent of all the veterans in Scotland are ex-RAF. That highlights Scotland’s close connection with the service, which goes back to the first world war. Alexander Stewart asserted that one in three of us knows someone who served in the RAF. Like David Stewart, I am one such person—my grandfather on my father’s side served in the RAF during the second world war, and my dad did his national service in the RAF. I had not thought of the connection until Alexander Stewart made that point.

The RAF’s history is apparent across all of Scotland, from the Borders to the furthest tip of Shetland at Saxa Vord. There is evidence of that in my constituency, which was home to RAF Tealing, where the local village hall sports a quite remarkable mural. An interesting fact that connects Scotland and the RAF is that the first German air raid on Britain during world war two, which was repelled by the RAF, took place not far from here, on the Firth of Forth, on 16 October 1939. As we have heard, the RAF’s presence is still just as evident today. As has been noted, its station in Lossiemouth has attracted very welcome financial support from the RAF Benevolent Fund.

Given our historical links with the service and the number of veterans in Scotland who proudly say that they are ex-RAF, it is welcome that we have had the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate an organisation whose valuable work has ensured that RAF personnel and their families have been supported in a way that they deserve.

As I have said previously, I, as the veterans minister, and the Scottish Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that life for those who leave the services is as successful as it can be. The Government’s view is completely in line with the values of the RAF Benevolent Fund. Since the Scottish veterans fund was founded in 2008, we have contributed to more than 150 projects that help the veterans community, and I am pleased to say that we have committed to supporting the fund for a further three years, up to 2023. In addition, I recently met local authority veterans champions to discuss how the Scottish Government can bolster the support that they get in their communities to carry out their role and provide the support that is needed for veterans in those areas.

It would be entirely remiss of me not to acknowledge that, in this role, I am building on the very sound foundations that were established by my predecessor, Keith Brown, whose knowledge of and passion for the subject shone through in his speech.

It is our collective duty to ensure that we provide the best support that we can to those people who are in need. We must work in partnership with those who share the common goal of improving the lives of our armed forces community, and we are extremely fortunate that the armed forces and veterans charities that we have in Scotland are among the most highly effective and well-regarded organisations in the sector. Therefore, I am sure that everyone will join me in thanking the RAF Benevolent Fund for its tireless efforts in supporting our armed forces community and wishing it well for the next 100 years and beyond.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the debate. I suspend the meeting until 2 o’clock.

13:42 Meeting suspended.  14:00 On resuming—