On Tuesday 22nd November I was honoured to lead an Adjournment debate on the rehabilitation of injured and sick service personnel and veterans. You can watch my speech in full and read the transcript of the debate below.
THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE DEBATE CAN BE READ HERE:
I welcome the opportunity to discuss in this House the rehabilitation of injured and sick service personnel and veterans. The people of our constituencies and of this country send us to this Chamber to represent them, but all too often what we discuss on these Benches seems a million miles away from the realities of those we seek to serve. We talk about the overview of massive nationwide schemes and about budgets in the tens of millions. We find ourselves talking about people as statistics—the percentage who need x, the numbers who have used y. It is only right that we talk about the big picture and the huge issues that this country faces, but I would like to use this opportunity to talk about some of the people we seek to serve: those who have served us and their country.
It is particularly poignant to speak in this House about the rehabilitation of veterans and service personnel in the week following Remembrance Sunday, when Members across the House attended services in honour of those who have given their lives in service. It is important that we all recognise that remembrance is not simply about familiar symbols and services over a few days in November, but about remembering those we have lost, honouring them by doing what we can to support the living, and recognising the reality of their lives.
Last year, I was honoured to be invited to join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The scheme aims to give Members of Parliament like me, with no experience of serving in the armed forces, an insight into military life. I had zero insight into that world until I took part in the scheme with the Royal Navy and with Royal Marine commandos. Along with some unforgettable experiences, I had the chance to meet service personnel from all walks of life, hear from them about their experiences, see them training and see them in the field. I actually bumped into ex-pupils from the last 20 years of my teaching career, which was quite the occasion.
Intervention from Jim Shannon MP
I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate; I spoke to her beforehand. I fully support what she is saying and what she means. A charity in my constituency called Beyond the Battlefield offers rehabilitation for service personnel and veterans and ensures that their wellbeing is taken into consideration. As well as rehab, it offers incredible mental health support and temporary shelter while veterans get back on their feet.
In Northern Ireland, housing priority has not yet been extended to service personnel, so they are often left in housing need if they become ill or injured. Does the hon. Lady agree that a more in-depth discussion is needed to ensure that veterans are protected through priority housing if they become ill or injured while in service or out of service?
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
It is really important that we continue to have the conversation about housing needs, particularly in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I would like to continue to have that conversation with him outside the Chamber in my role as shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. I thank him for his intervention.
One thing that struck me about my experience in the armed forces parliamentary scheme was that there is no standard military job. The diversity of experiences and skills, and of people, was striking.
Intervention from Matt Rodda
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing today’s debate; I commend what she says. In my constituency, there are many retired Gurkha soldiers. Unfortunately, those who retired before 1997 receive a much lower pension than other colleagues in the British Army. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important for Ministers to listen to the issues raised by the Gurkhas? Does she also agree that it is incumbent on Ministers to continue discussions with the Nepalese Government and bring them to a fruitful conclusion?
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
My hon. Friend is right. It is important that the conversation about pensions with the Nepalese Government continues and that he speaks to the Minister and the Secretary of State about it.
Perhaps those in civilian life, like many of us in this House, too often view the armed forces as one homogeneous group. They may have one image of the type of person who enters the forces, or an idea of military life that bears more relation to a Sunday afternoon film than to reality. It is essential that we in this House do not make the same mistake. We must acknowledge both individual needs and the unique position of those who serve and have served as they transition into civilian life, and we need to ensure that the specialised services that support them are well funded and supported to grow.
These include organisations such as the British Training Board, whose goal is to make sure that the training and skills achieved in the armed forces are recognised by civilian employers. It was set up by an Army veteran, Adrian Rabey, who on leaving the service found that the skills he had gained as a teacher and trainer were not recognised by employers, despite having been told the opposite when he was in the Army. A few years later he began to see friends in a similar position and started to work with them and looking at gaps in their qualifications, and he realised that the prior learning they had untaken in the military was not being recognised. Since then, fantastic work has been going on and the British Training Board has successfully helped thousands of serving and ex-military personnel to get recognition for their previous military and public services training and experience, and it has grown to offering career development, coaching and support, which I have seen at first hand. This is a specialist service for a unique set of people, but we cannot rely on people like Adrian alone to fulfil our obligations to veterans.
In 2011 the country made a promise, founded on the unique obligations and sacrifices of those who serve or have served in the armed forces, that they and their families should be treated fairly. The armed forces covenant is in place because we recognised the unique nature of the service given to this country by those in the forces.
Intervention from Carla Lockhart
I thank the hon. Member for bringing forward this important issue. We have had a number of conflicts since the Falklands in 1982, including the Gulf war, Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course 30 years of troubles and violence in Northern Ireland. Our service personnel served with distinction, with many paying the ultimate sacrifice and others being left with mental and physical scars. Does she agree that, in Northern Ireland specifically, the continual glorification of terrorism is inhibiting the rehabilitation and wellness of our ex-service personnel? We have political leaders saying that it was justified and that there was no alternative, but if we continue to hear language like that our service personnel will never be rehabilitated and will continue to be retraumatised.
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I would like to have a discussion about the glorification of terrorism with her outside the Chamber, and I thank her for raising it and putting it on the record.
We must recognise that everyone’s experiences and sacrifices are unique, and that the nature of the support they receive must reflect that. I commend the Government for acknowledging the need for targeted and specialist support through the introduction of the armed forces personnel in transition framework, which should ensure that seriously wounded armed forces personnel with very complex and enduring healthcare requirements who are transitioning into civilian life will continue to receive comprehensive support throughout their lifetime, although I and others would welcome assurances from the Government that integrated personal commissioning for veterans is being implemented effectively.
Intervention from Dan Jarvis
I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent speech. I am particularly pleased that she has mentioned the integrated personal commissioning for veterans scheme—IPC4V—which I know was set up with veterans such as Ben Parkinson in mind. Ben Parkinson is a hero and I have been in regular contact with him and his family for a number of years. I am concerned that worries have been expressed recently about whether Ministry of Defence funding is still in place to enable charities to provide the vital services that veterans like Ben need, as was the case previously. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that those veterans’ needs are always met? Soldiers like Ben Parkinson have done their duty to our country, and we must do our duty to them by ensuring that they get the treatment they need for the duration of their lives.
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is essential that that funding is there from the MOD, and I would like to work with him on this. I am sure that the Minister will do so as well.
I said at the start of this contribution that I wanted to talk about people, and I want to talk about a few of the people I have come to know and about their journeys, because it is important that their stories should be heard from these green Benches. I want to tell the House about Pete and the impact that his ambition has had, not just on him but on the support that service people and veterans like him are now able to access though a phenomenal organisation that I have been lucky enough to work with called 65 Degrees North.
Pete Bowker was a lance corporal in the Queen’s Dragoon Guards. When on tour in Afghanistan, the armoured vehicle in which he was traveling was hit by an improvised explosive device. As a result of the blast, Pete lost his right leg below the knee and was discharged in 2012. In 2015, Pete became the world’s first amputee to cross the Greenland ice cap unsupported. Pete was assisted by a team put together by the formidable Richard Morgan, a former Royal Marines commando. When Rich met Pete—that sounds like a film, doesn’t it?—in 2013, as part of a team taking part in a 10-day endurance challenge to raise money for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women, Pete told Rich about his ambition to cross the Greenland ice cap and how he had struggled to get support for it, so Rich decided to help him, because that is what Rich is like. Even when he discovered that Pete did not know how to ski—imagine that!—which is pretty important for someone trying to get across Greenland, he still carried on.
The expedition to Greenland not only fulfilled Pete’s ambition; it started something bigger. Seeing the impact of the Greenland expedition, the team behind it saw the potential for adventure in rehabilitation, which is how 65 Degrees North began. In the years since, 65 Degrees North has helped more than 100 wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans realise their ambitions. Offering this community the opportunity to participate in challenging, unique and, honestly, arduous expeditions, which I do not think I could achieve, supports them to regain their confidence, change their behaviours and tackle PTSD by offering a form of participation centred on rehabilitation in which outcomes are clear, tangible and empowering—that is the word.
Intervention from Conor McGinn
The message is very clear, that service and inspiration does not stop when these individuals leave the armed forces; in some cases, it only begins. My constituent Andy Reid, from Rainford, last month became the first triple amputee from the UK to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. After being injured in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, Andy set up the Standing Tall Foundation in St Helens. It is not just about helping veterans and those he served alongside; it is open to everyone in the town and borough. People like Andy continue to be an inspiration to this very day, and we should have them in mind in this debate.
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
That is absolutely brilliant. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because constituents like Andy need to know about and participate in such activities. It is all-encompassing.
Listening to the testimonies of those who have taken part in such activities, it is clear that real-life feedback and learning, where they are asked to deal with new situations and to adapt to constantly changing conditions, gives them confidence and helps them to recapture parts of themselves that they felt were lost because of their injury and experience.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this approach is how it helps participants to challenge their perceptions of themselves. The research shows that cognitive dissonance has been created between a person’s perceived abilities and their actual behaviours, and it is summed up so well in the words of Zoe, a Royal Navy lieutenant:
“The first time I walked in the door, we had a really nice talk about how the whole idea was to get people outside, build some confidence. It is one of those moments where everyone kind of comes together and says, ‘You said you couldn’t do that and now look at you—you can do it.’ Pulling my head away from, ‘It hurts, you can’t do this. You haven’t been able to walk, let alone climb’ to climbing up a ridge that Royal Marine commandos use to train on the rock weekly essentially obliterated it, because I had no choice. It was like, ‘You’re going to give this a go.’”
When talking to people who have been involved, it is clear how this approach impacts positively on their mental health and wellbeing, and helps change lives for the better. There is no cure-all for PTSD or the other issues that these participants face, but there is clearly a need for tailored support and space for different therapeutic approaches as part of a holistic support model.
I would like to end—I say that, but I am not going to end soon, so do not get excited—with the words of the wife of one of the 65 Degrees North participants, who sums up not only the struggle that far too many service personnel, veterans and their families face when they need support, but the impact that is made when they receive it. We must not forget the families and the partners of our service personnel. She says:
“When Mark first told me about wanting to climb Kilimanjaro with 65 Degrees North I was very wary and I will admit now that I was cynical.
PTSD seems to be the new “trendy” charity cause that people want to be involved in, only to have them let you down. You would not believe the charities we both approached for help, only to find out that it was either not there, not in our area or we didn’t tick the right box to be entitled to help.
I remember the day I was crying down the phone to a certain PTSD forces charity, begging for them to help him, to be told as he is now working in the careers service he isn’t classed as serving in their eyes! So I was told there was nothing they could do, but when I then asked a charity that dealt with veterans, yep you guessed it, they classed him as still serving, so we just slipped through the cracks. I had to watch this man, who had given 28 years of his life, who sacrificed so much, be cast aside by these people, all because he didn’t quite meet their criteria.
So we tried the GP...who had no clue how to help.
After hours and hours of researching I did find someone who was willing to help and it did help…for a short time.
Unfortunately they didn’t seem to realise that PTSD isn’t like a cold, you don’t wake up and suddenly be cured. So PTSD was back...with a vengeance.
So yes, I was doubtful, cynical and feeling very protective that Mark would yet again be failed and let down. But I smiled, told him whatever he wanted to do I’d support him and just thought I’d have to pick up the pieces later. So our weekends became filled with mountain walks, treks up to Pen Y Fan (I actually had frost bite at one point and didn’t I complain).
Time quickly passed and it was time for him to leave…but he didn’t want to go. Fear of failure (like that would ever happen…We are talking bootneck stubbornness here) what if he didn’t like anyone? What if they didn’t like him? What if he got injured? What if? So I dropped him off and told him he’d be fine and did the thing every forces partner does... waited and worried.
But something happened, each time he was able to get in touch he sounded a bit different, calmer, stronger, positive and proud, feelings that PTSD takes from you. There were dark times, times he said he didn’t think he would make it. but he did... he conquered Kili and in doing so took the biggest leap towards a life (dare I say it) free from PTSD.
There are no words I can use to describe the change in Mark since his return, for the first time we can both see there is light at the end of this long, dark PTSD tunnel. That we aren’t alone, there are actually people out there who not only care, but are willing to help and continue to help.
So yes, I was wrong (hey, it doesn’t happen very often)”--
“becoming involved with 65 Degrees North was one of the best things Mark has done for himself and for us. If anyone has the chance to help and get involved with them then please grab that opportunity. I promise you, it will change your life.”
I have brought up this charity with the Minister and he has agreed to meet people from it. I am very thankful for that and will arrange for that meeting to happen. I have been honoured to be able to stand in this House and talk about the experiences of soldiers and of these two charities that support our servicemen and women, and veterans, with dignity. For me, “dignity” is the key word.
I also wish to put on record, from my experience and from those of other Members who have been part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, how unique and brilliant that scheme is. It has changed my whole outlook as a Member of Parliament. It is what should be rolled out for all parliamentarians and all their staff as a matter of course, because it is incredible.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of Commander Susie Moran from the Royal Navy and Lieutenant Johnny Longbottom, who supported my journey through the scheme, which was entertaining. It also helped this Member of Parliament for Gower, in Swansea, south Wales to gain a greater insight into the challenges of our current service personnel and a better understanding of the needs and the rehabilitation of injured and sick service personnel and veterans. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his comments, which will be coming, and to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.