Department of Health Skip to content

Please note that this website has a UK government access keys system.

You are here:

Minister of State for Health's speech to the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations

  • Last modified date:
    7 December 2010
Simon Burns MP

It is a pleasure for me to be with you all today. I do not need to tell you how the work of COBSEO and the organisations it represents makes an incredible difference.  And I thank you for it. 

As the son, the grandson, the step-son and the nephew of armed forces personnel, I hope I understand some of the pressures of life in the armed forces. Certainly some of the pressures on family life, moving from base to base and country to country.

I have the deepest respect for all those who serve their country and put themselves in harm's way.

The silent processions through the crowded streets of Wootton Bassett are an all too familiar reminder of the debt we owe to those who have fallen in combat, and the high esteem in which they are held by the public. For them, we can only remember and honour their sacrifice and give their loved ones every support in such a difficult time.

But for those hurt and injured in Iraq and Afghanistan we can do more.

Strategic Defence and Security Review
The military, like all areas of government spending, face some difficult challenges in the coming years.  The Strategic Defence and Security Review protected the front line because Afghanistan is the Government's top priority.  But the implications of the Review will have a long lasting impact on all of the services. 

To dig this country out from under the mountain of debt built up by the previous government requires strong and determined action.  But, as the Chancellor and Prime Minister have often said, we will not ask the sick to foot the bill for the debt crisis.

This is why we have not only protected the NHS budget, but will actually increase it in real terms every year of this Parliament.  It is why we will honour the £2 million commitment made by the previous government to support the work of Combat Stress and our other partners.  And it is why the Strategic Defence and Security Review commits a further £20 million a year for the healthcare of Service personnel.

Military Covenant
In recent years, the Military Covenant – the implicit agreement between the Nation and its military to treat the members of our armed services fairly – has been damaged.  Despite the unavoidable reductions in military budgets, this Government wants to repair that damage. 

The rebuilt Armed Forces Covenant will guide policy across government.

The MOD is working with Departments across Whitehall – including my own – with the military and with service charities to improve the detail of the Covenant.  We’re looking at what we can do, within existing budgets, to make a real difference to men and women on the ground, both in theatre and back home in the UK. 

The price of valour can be high.  And for some, the most difficult part of combat can be the return home, especially when they leave military service.  Rather than an easy return to civilian life, they can face a daily struggle as they deal with the realities of life outside the armed forces. 

Every year, around 22,000 people make this transition to civilian life.  Now, the vast majority of service men and women make the switch with no real issues.  But others find the move more difficult. 

The issues they face can be fairly straight forward - the simple logistical problems of finding a GP and a dentist.  But because we are involved in active combat, some face issues that are far more complex. 

If someone has been seriously wounded, they may require a lifetime of ongoing health and social care.  In these cases, we need a seamless transition from the military health apparatus into the NHS.  Nothing less will do.  We cannot accept a single person “falling through the gaps”. 

I’m determined to do right by those who have given so much for their country.  To do whatever we can to meet their physical, mental and social care needs.  And some progress is being made. 

The MOD and the Department of Health have worked together to develop Transition Protocols, which are now being piloted.  MOD medical and welfare staff are being trained on the importance of making early links with their NHS colleagues when discharging seriously injured personnel.

These pilots highlight the need for clear lines of responsibility for case management, for stronger links at the local level between NHS and Defence Medical Services and for the close involvement of service charities from the beginning.
We are also working with the MOD to ensure that a person’s medical records are properly transferred to the NHS.  This includes identifying a named GP prior to discharge.  The absence of this link can lead to ex-service personnel vanishing from the record and missing out on any care they might need.

And once under the care of the NHS, we must make sure that all veterans receive the same high levels of care and treatment.  It cannot be right that while today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan get the very latest in prosthetic technology from Headley Court, veterans of previous conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, do not.

So we will ensure that all veterans who lost a limb on active service benefit from the latest technology, where this would be clinically appropriate.

In practical terms, this underlines, once again, the importance of early and close engagement between the military and the NHS so that individual patients get the right support and ongoing maintenance from the start.

Vital to supporting this process will be the new ‘Armed Forces Networks’.  These Networks will help bring together and coordinate services for ex-service personnel within a Strategic Health Authority area.

I invite you all to join with these Networks to provide a strong local voice for veterans, their families and the families of those currently serving.  With your help we can make sure that these groups are not put at a disadvantage when accessing healthcare.

Mental health
For a few, the scars of battle are not physical, but mental. Those who suffer from mental health problems can experience anxiety, depression or even post traumatic stress disorder. 

Earlier this month [6 October], we published Dr Andrew Murrison’s report, 'Fighting Fit - A mental health plan for servicemen and veterans'.  He had been asked by the Prime Minister to look at what more we could do to assess and meet the needs of serving and ex-service personnel. 

Again, Dr Murrison emphasised the importance of close, early contact with the NHS.  Of making people aware of the help that is available to them when they leave the armed forces. 

We are already working to implement two of his recommendations.  We will introduce an additional 30 mental health nurses to work alongside staff from Combat Stress and other charities to ensure that mental health services in every part of England/ the UK meet the needs of local veterans.  And a dedicated 24- hour help line, run with Combat Stress and the Mental Helplines Partnership, will enable veterans to find the support they need.  This should be up and running within the next month or so.

We will also be looking at how we can develop an online community to provide further support for veterans with mental health issues.

Dr Murrison’s recommendations build on other work already underway.  We’re currently evaluating 6 community mental health pilots, to make sure that the learning and best practice gained is fed back into the wider system.  And the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies guidance now includes veteran-specific recommendations.

The National Health Service provides some of the best physical and mental healthcare in the world.  But it cannot do everything.  It’s organisations like the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, the Department of Health’s voluntary sector strategic partners, and all those represented under the COBSEO banner that provide the emotional support, the hand to hold, the experience of having been there themselves, that can be so important.

This government wants to support and empower voluntary organisations.  To give them the freedom and skills they need to make a significant and lasting impact on the lives of individuals.  Real partnership across all of government and the voluntary sector, joining up and drawing from expertise across the board – from mental health charities and children’s voluntary organisations to our strategic partners.  Working together to improve services and to support veterans and their families.

I truly value the excellent work we do together.  One recent example is the publication last month of the leaflet, ‘Meeting the Healthcare needs of Veterans’ produced in conjunction with the Royal College of General Practitioners.  This will help to raise awareness of veterans’ issues among GPs, helping them understand the particular needs of this group of patients.

I am constantly humbled by the courage shown and the sacrifices made by all of our armed forces in the line of duty.  The least we can do is to give those who return home the support they need to lead as full a life outside of the military as they did in it.

Access keys