Armed Forces Day

Every year, I spend this day thinking about my dad who fought in Burma during the Second World War.

Each and every one of us has a connection to the Armed Forces – even if you don’t have a family member who served in the past, or who serves now, I can safely say that you will have benefited from the Forces’ commitment to our safety.

Just an example from my own constituency during the pandemic: it was the Armed Forces who facilitated effective mobile testing units across the Highlands. I will always be grateful to them for taking care of my local community and the people I represent during these frightful times.

If Coronavirus had not happened I would have spent this week preparing for the second reading of my bill to ringfence NHS spending for veteran mental health services.

As my party’s Defence spokesperson, I have tried to ensure that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) do their upmost to support the wellbeing of serving personnel and veterans.

If Coronavirus had not interrupted the parliamentary schedule this year, I would have spent this week preparing for the second reading of my bill to ringfence NHS spending for veteran mental health services.

Between April 2017 and January 2019, the Care Quality Commission rated two out of four MoD mental health centres as inadequate or needing improvement between. There were at least 50% shortfalls in both uniformed and civilian psychiatrist posts in 2017-18. For anyone that is interested about the scale of the funding issue, I would point them towards this Defence Committee report.

Given everything that our Armed Forces have done to support us during the pandemic, I think we are more united than ever as a country in recognising their value. Making sure the MoD is providing the best support possible for serving personnel, veterans, and their families is a big part of saying thank you. It is not enough to salute them today. We must act.

But sometimes, identifying the best course of action can be difficult. This brings me to Black Lives Matter.

The movement continues to teach me a lot – and sometimes what it has to teach me is uncomfortable! – but I am grateful, nonetheless. One of the most important lessons for me is that listening is everything.

We have no hope in hell of determining what the ‘right action’ is if we don’t listen!

With this in mind, I asked the MoD for a breakdown on the number of reported complaints of racist incidents in the Armed Forces between 2015 and 2020.

On the 23rd of June they got back to me. They said they couldn’t give me that data. Johnny Mercer, the relevant Minister, said in his reply that the Department was “working to improve its data capture of all unacceptable behaviour”.

It is blindingly obvious to me that in order to tackle racism in the Armed Forces, and to support BAME personnel, the MoD must be better at actually understanding how racism functions within its ranks. If the MoD does not capture this data, what does that say about how well it is listening to complainants? What does it say about how they are trying to make things better? If they haven’t got all the evidence at their fingertips to inform their strategy to tackle racism going forward, then there is clearly an awful long way to go.

We need to understand the impact that Coronavirus has had, and is having, on the Armed Forces

I note that in May 2020, Help for Heroes conducted a study of veterans, service personnel and their families about the impact of Coronavirus on their mental health – they identified a 50% increase in those saying they are not managing their mental health well compared to before the pandemic. A month after Help For Heroes published this data, the Government announced that they would launch a “new study to understand the effect of coronavirus” on the UK’s veteran community.

We need these studies. We need to understand the impact that Coronavirus has had, and is having, on the Armed Forces – whether they are currently serving or are veterans. For that reason, I welcome the Government’s action on this wholeheartedly.

But it does beg the question: if the MoD are able to set up a study on the impact of COVID-19 as quickly as they have, can they not do the same for incidents of racism?

The Black Lives Matter movement is a constant reminder that racism remains an emergency to be addressed. Unless the MoD starts getting this data in order and using it to inform its strategy to tackle racism going forward, then I fear for what that says to our Armed Forces and anyone who wants to join up. I am not saying the MoD has no ears – it has made huge strides in making the Armed Forces a diverse and welcoming vocation opportunity, but it isn’t able to tell me how many reported incidents or racism it has had in the last five years.

So, what’s my ask on Armed Forces Day? It’s that we go above and beyond to support all personnel, serving or not, in their ability to access specific and tailored mental health support; it’s that we treat racism amongst the ranks as an emergency; and that it’s a Force that listens. A Force that listens and then acts based on the evidence.

A Force that truly values everyone that serves it.