I have announced today that, after nearly six years in the role, I am stepping down as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition.
It has been a privilege to serve under the last two Conservative Party leaders as I worked with all stakeholders to ensure military personnel receive the support they need when making the transition to civilian life.
My appointment was announced in September 2012 by David Cameron and, of course, the two of us have had our public differences since then. However, I remain grateful to him for the opportunities that the role has given me and I also thank Theresa May for allowing me to continue my work under her leadership.
I believe that the work I set out to do is complete. Although there is still work to be done, my work is done and this is the right moment for me to move on and pursue some of my other wide-ranging interests.
I have written to the Government, notably the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, to inform them of my decision. I have thanked them for their support and told them that I will continue to take an interest in the field and, if the right situation arises, I will help in any way that I can.
In the build-up to my appointment in 2012, our Armed Forces had been losing a significant number of personnel to death and serious injury in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, amid emotional scenes, the coffins of 355 fallen military personnel passed through Wootton Bassett (now Royal Wootton Bassett) between spring 2007 and summer 2011.
This was the difficult environment in which I started my new role six years ago, with the nation concerned about what was being widely depicted as high casualty rates for those personnel serving in the two danger zones. When I was appointed, I decided to give my role real meaning by conducting a review into every aspect of the transition of Service leavers to their civilian lives. For a year, a small team carried out extensive research.
Not only did I never draw any salary or expenses for my role, but I also funded the research myself. This was partly out of a sense of public service but also because I did not want to be duty-bound to any department or organisation.
My own polling organisation, Lord Ashcroft Polls, allowed me to conduct independent research and the Government permitted me access to everyone I needed to see.
In February 2014, I published the Veterans’ Transition Review which analysed the process of leaving the Armed Forces and returning to civilian life. The Government, in turn, agreed to implement all the significant recommendations in the review.
The message that I drummed home in my 200-page review was that transition is important for the Armed Forces and society as a whole, not just the individual. A more successful transition from the military will mean higher-quality candidates wanting to join, creating a virtuous circle that helps recruitment, retention and the reputation of the Services.
I believe that an enormous amount has been achieved in a relatively short time. The importance of a good transition is now far more widely recognised at senior levels in the military and by politicians. Personnel are being encouraged to prepare for transition much earlier in their careers and the handover between the defence and civilian health services is smoother than before. Furthermore, additional work is done to ensure that military qualifications/experience are recognised by civilian employers and that the needs of Services leavers are better understood and catered for.
Veterans’ Gateway is an important step forward in that it provides a single contact centre for veterans and their families to get in touch with organisations best placed to help with the information, advice and support.
Another important legacy of my role has been the establishment of the Veterans & Families Research Hub. This is a collaboration between the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), myself and Anglia Ruskin University, of which I am Chancellor. The Hub’s aim is “to bring people and knowledge together”.
The Hub, which went “live” last year, is aimed at a wide range of users, including academics and researchers, policy makers, statutory and voluntary service providers, the media and the public, including the military and veterans’ community.
I am delighted to report that the Hub is now fully operational from its home at Anglia Ruskin’s campus in Chelmsford, Essex, where it is under the management of Alex Cooper, who is Director of the Forces in Mind Trust Research Centre.
Later this month the Hub is due to publish the first in a series of “Snapshot” reports into key areas that affect veterans and their families. Each “Snapshot” will summarise the existing research into important areas such as housing, employment, mental health, physical health and finance.
Given the scale of my task when I was appointed in 2012, it is perhaps inevitable that there are still some areas of concern. The first is that while many useful initiatives have been developed separately by the NHS, individual authorities, charities and other bodies, these are too often confined to their “silo”. The reality is that best practice needs to be shared more effectively.
The second area concerns public perceptions: in particular, people greatly overestimate the likelihood that Service leavers will experience physical and (especially) mental health conditions, as well as other problems such as homelessness. These problems do, of course, exist but the persistent view that they are more widespread than is really the case creates an extra hurdle for Service leavers to overcome. It also damages the Forces’ wider reputation and their ability to recruit.
The misconception is harmful in other ways too: it can damage the prospects of those searching for work and it draws attention from those who really do need help.
Given the UK’s rich history and the traditions of our Armed Forces, it is unacceptable that military service is widely considered to be damaging to the individual when, in the vast majority of cases, this is simply not the case.
This misperception must be addressed and, ultimately, fixed. Indeed I am delighted that the newly appointed Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board has this issue high on its agenda.
As I step down, I would like to thank those who have contributed significantly to my work. Michael Laurie, Kevin Culwick and Alex Cooper have been among the key members of my team, while I would also like to record my gratitude to ministers, officials and the Armed Forces, who have provided help with information and who, even more importantly, acted on our findings.
I have gained enormous satisfaction from my role as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition because I believe that the work I do with others does make a real difference.
In simple terms, my role did what it said “on the tin” in that independently, and without representing any body other than the Service leavers themselves, I was able to shine a light on the changes that were needed to make it easier for thousands of people a year to make a successful transition from the military to civilian life. I am proud to have played a small part in helping those who have served the nation.
Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, an author, international businessman and philanthropist. Visit LordAshcroft.com or LordAshcroftPolls.com to find out more and sign up to receive new stories as soon as they are published.