Minister for Defence People and Veterans' keynote speech at DSEI 2019
Defence Minister Johnny Mercer outlines the MOD's commitment to the armed forces community at the 2019 DSEI
It’s my third visit to DSEI and it’s been a really good week, really interesting. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, whether walking around the stands talking to our brilliant partners in the Defence industry, meeting lots of friends and old colleagues from across the wonderful service charity sector, but chiefly of course meeting so many veterans who have transitioned successfully into highly challenging and rewarding careers since leaving service.
And it is specifically that ‘people’ piece I am going to talk about this morning, because it was that ‘people’ piece that first propelled me into the political arena to try and improve the lives of those who serve our country in the Armed Forces community.
And so of course I was delighted personally when the new Prime Minister asked me to lead on this for Her Majesty’s Government.
Because as you wander around this remarkable exhibition this week - you will have seen some extraordinary equipment, both land air and sea, with capabilities we could only dream of, just a few years ago.
But it will not have missed your attention that they all require one key component.
We live in extraordinary times - we all know that. The chaos and division of a changing world has presented our nation with challenges it hasn’t faced in a generation.
Globally the character and nature of conflict is changing sometimes faster than we can keep up with.
But for me there does remain one constant. That key component without which this nation - put simply - simply would not exist as we know it today.
Those individuals who believe so much in this country, that they are prepared to leave home, defend our interests and defeat those who would do us harm.
And that is of course the men and women of the UK’s Armed Forces.
Our people are deeply special. They aren’t like other people’s Armed Forces. I persistently hear, going around here as well, the comparisons about how other nations do this and that, how they are better than us at this or that, or their equipment or capability is better than ours in certain areas.
Occasionally this might be fair; often, these days, it is not.
But there is one indisputable area where I’m afraid we have no peers.
Our people. Our people are extraordinary. Whether shaped by the supreme sacrifices by those who went before us, or formed by our unique traditions and peerless history of our military institutions, we produce a unique product.
One envied the world over, and one I am absolutely determined to protect and cherish as much as the most valuable, expensive, and strategically important battle winning asset in this building.
It’s one that we have talked a good game about for some time in this country, and indeed the MOD has worked hard to protect in increasingly tighter fiscal constraints.
But, one that ultimately needs to be repositioned in my view, at the centre of Defence. Our people are actually our finest asset, and this Prime Minister is going to show it.
Because when did a Prime Minister last come into office and immediately talk about veterans? Who was the last Prime Minister to come in and strategically alter the apparatus of Government to better look after those who have served? And who was the last Prime Minister to come in and in his first spending review allocate almost 20% of the increased spending plans, towards the military?
For the first time in a generation we have a unique opportunity to reset this country’s relationship with her Armed Forces and veteran community, and I very much intend to make the most of it.
My in-tray is of course, significant. Chiefly amongst it is the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, and I want to outline a little bit of thinking on this matter.
The role of this office is to ensure this Government’s duty to the nation’s veterans.
We have a unique set of circumstances in this country when it comes to our veteran community, and comparisons to other nations, or similar offices or departments, should really be left to one side.
For we face different challenges. In the shadow of a war 75 years ago which essentially touched all parts of British society, structures such as the welfare state and the National Health Service were set up to help get the nation - and her veterans as part of that community - back on their feet.
We have never tried to create a separate society of veterans, and neither would it be healthy to do so, but instead we have strived to create good citizens who have served, who yes, sometimes may have unique needs, but ultimately in the society from which they are drawn.
And this is entirely the right strategic approach that we should continue with.
But now, as the nature of conflict has changed, so have our Armed Forces - and their families’ experiences are changing too.
Remote wars, often without public support - have become the norm. And so the challenges faced by our Armed Forces and veteran communities have evolved as well.
Gaps in provision were painfully exposed by my generation’s wars. The MOD has worked hard to meet these challenges, but chiefly the wonderful British public have stepped into the void and we’ve seen an explosion in the service charitable sector.
But now with public giving to these charities reducing, and a re-alignment in political thinking about the country’s ultimate duty to those who have served, means now is the right time for Government to play more of a role in this area.
The Office has a clear objective: to harness all functions and initiatives across Government to ensure the nation’s duty to those who have served - and crucially their families.
It does not mean the provision of services - we have some wonderful service providers in the UK, both public, in the NHS, and in the third sector with some world-class charity programmes.
But it does means professionalisation of veterans’ services. It means a determined collection of data to begin to build a single view of the veteran both inside and outside Government. It means a determination to ensure that the charity sector is fit for purpose.
It means that if you are 92 years old and you have dementia and you are asked to contribute to an inquest in Northern Ireland almost half a century ago, you have somewhere to turn for support.
It means for the first time an accountability - an ultimate accountability in the political sphere, for the duty that politicians are so good at talking about - our debt to those who have served and their families.
It means an end to duplication, so that every single pound donated by the British public to looking after the nation’s veterans is used in the most effective way.
And finally it means an end to a postcode lottery by legislating the Armed Forces Covenant into law so that wherever you live in this United Kingdom you can expect as Teddy Roosevelt told a gathering of veterans on July 4th 1903: “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled, and less than that no man shall have.”
We have some genuinely world class care-deliverers in this country in the Charity sector. I am determined to promote and nurture these. This nation owes a huge debt of gratitude for the leading role charities have played in getting veterans’ care to a better place in this country.
I am humbled every time I have contact with individuals working in this sector - the sheer devotion to duty to our people is astounding, and it is now time that in Government we matched it.
But collaboration was always the key; it is now a necessity. This sector has received almost a billion pounds in LIBOR money over the last ten years. There is no conceivable reason why the sector cannot be configured in a way that is entirely focused on the veteran and their needs, with the end result being a veterans’ care service that truly is the envy of the world.
So I look forward to the challenges ahead in Veterans’ care. This is a collaborative journey, and there is no-one’s voice who will not be heard going forward - it is an inclusive journey, not an exclusive one, and everybody is invited - we will demonstrate this with our Veterans Forums and other initiatives that I will launch in the weeks ahead.
Other challenges in my in-tray are equally daunting. The process of ending repeated and vexatious litigation against our service men and women will end under this Prime Minister. He and I are crystal clear; those who break the law in uniform will be held to account. But the attempts to rewrite the history and the sacrifice of our men and women in defence of this nation will simply not be endured anymore.
This vexatious litigation has been a scar on this nation’s military history for too long, and we are only just beginning to see the harvest of a problem that has been unaddressed by successive Governments.
I understand the pain and I understand the anger. The Prime Minister gets it. Give us now the time and space to do what we have promised and end this nightmare for too many of our veterans.
In summary - there is much to do. There may well be bumps ahead in the road. But I am determined to get to a place where I can say to both the highest and the lowest rank in this land, that we have the world’s best veterans’ care for the world’s best Armed Forces.
That our people and families feel like that - not that just we at the top of the organisation constantly talk about what we do, but that actually people feel that, who work in the organisation.
And ensure that I can still confidently tell the hundreds of young people I meet across this country who ask me what a career in the military is like, that it remains the single best thing you can do with your life, and that the nation and successive Governments will fully see through their duty to those who serve in her Armed Forces.
Thank you very much.