Boris Johnson recently announced the creation of the UK’s first-ever Office for Veterans’ Affairs. This new office will focus on lifelong support for those who have served in the armed forces, to ensure no veteran is disadvantaged because of their service. It will make sure veterans “get the medical treatment they require”, along with access to “further training and skills” needed “to keep them in good jobs”.
For the vast majority of those leaving the armed forces, the transition to civilian life is relatively straightforward. But for those who do experience difficulties, the issues can be complex. Recent analysis suggests that some 50,000 veterans are coping with mental health conditions and 10,000 are in prison or on probation. While the British Legion estimates that there are about 6,000 homeless veterans in the UK.
So while the government’s move to do more to support veterans in health, employment and training is good news, it fails to recognise that veterans with complex needs will need support from the benefits system at some point during their transition to civilian life.
Yet our new research –- funded by the Forces in Mind Trust, which commissions research on the challenges faced by the armed forces community – found that many veterans find the system bewildering and require additional support to ensure their needs are appropriately met.
A system of shame
Throughout our two-year project, we carried out 120 in-depth interviews with veterans and their families. Overwhelmingly, our participants found the benefits system complex and difficult to navigate. They struggled to understand the benefits available along with the conditions attached to continued eligibility. And it was evident that information about the benefits system was largely absent from the information provided when leaving the armed forces. As one veteran explained:
When you join… you lose track of what’s going on, especially in the benefits system… After 15 years’ service, I came out [and] I’ve ended up on benefits, but it’s a minefield.
Navigating the benefits system was often made more difficult due to the stigma attached to claiming benefits. In some cases, this stigma prevented veterans from initially claiming benefits. A number of people we spoke to said benefits had been a “last resort”. One of the participants explained:
I survived for two years without a penny… I didn’t claim anything, I was totally against it. I was too proud… My first appointment [at] the Jobcentre was horrific. The woman [spoke] to me like I was [a] child that didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning… It is massively degrading, when you do something as proud as serving in the army.
Our research also showed how mental and physical health issues can significantly impact some veteran’s ability to enter and sustain paid work. And another significant concern related to the assessments of capability to work that are a feature of the social security system.
Veterans’ experiences of these assessments were overwhelmingly negative – with a perceived focus on physical rather than mental health issues. Many veterans also felt there to be a lack of awareness of service-related impairments. It was also confusing as to why their existing service-related medical information did not appear to feed into the process. As one veteran explained:
I went in for an assessment with both a medical record and a mental health record. Neither were looked at. Was that person qualified to score me zero without looking at the documents?
Over the course of our project, some veterans had moved from legacy benefits, (employment and support allowance, Jobseeker’s allowance) to Universal Credit. All had found this move problematic and highlighted problems with the waiting period for the first payment, reductions in benefit entitlements and difficulties with the online system:
Everything was online… I wasn’t sure what to do, and things weren’t made very clear. I forgot to [logon] to my account and tick a box… so I was sanctioned.
As the migration to Universal Credit continues, there is no better time to ensure that the benefits system is appropriately supporting those who have served in the armed forces – ensuring that information on the UK social security system is included as a routine part of the resettlement support would be a good start. As would changes to the assessment process to ensure that assessors have an understanding of service-related impairments.
More importantly, the notion that claiming benefits is a “failure” for ex-service personnel needs to change. Without such changes, veterans will continue to struggle within the benefits system. And the government will fail on the commitments made to those who have served their country.