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Every day, around the country and around the world, the men and women of the Armed Forces serve their fellow citizens in keeping the country safe. They often undergo huge danger to life and limb; they operate under considerable pressures and increasingly tight budgets. Amongst people of all political persuasions and none there is a consensus that servicemen and servicewomen represent some of the best of this country, and should be accorded every respect.

Yet after leaving the forces many of these people find themselves in considerable personal difficulties. Six per cent of London’s homeless population are veterans; nationwide over a thousand ex-servicemen are currently homeless. Employment statistics too paint a grim picture – the Royal British Legion suggests that ‘working age veterans in the UK are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their civilian contemporaries,’ with many more likely to be underemployed too. Many men and women are discharged from the army only to find themselves suffering from damage to their physical and mental health as a result of their service; PTSD, depression and anxiety are some of the most common diagnoses. Of these, far too many do not get adequate help, which can lead these conditions to worsen.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Ex-servicemen are a group of hugely talented individuals who can be of enormous value to their employers, and who can reintegrate well into the society they fought to protect. But to stop the tragedy of veterans being lost to unemployment and long-running health issues, a coherent and centralised governmental plan is needed. At its core such a plan should focus upon reaffirming and renewing the Armed Forces Covenant, and making it as fit for purpose as possible in the 21st century.

The most reliable way of reintegrating veterans into society is to successfully reintegrate them into the labour market. Having a regular, satisfying and well-paid job gives individuals dignity and a living, as well as providing structure and rhythm to their daily life. At present, despite the unique and varied skills possessed by veterans, they often find themselves unable to transition to the civilian labour market. One key reason for this is the paucity of formal qualifications some possess, which automatically rules them out of consideration for a variety of jobs. This could be tackled in a variety of ways. One such would be for the government to introduce an alternative military secondary qualification which could be studied for part-time, and which would be focussed on vocational and leadership skills whilst having a strong numeracy and comprehension element. Points could be awarded for on-the-job activities and training, and the end qualification would be ranked as Level 1 on the statutory National Qualification Framework. It would not be intended to function as an alternative to GCSEs, but instead be an effective endorsement of the individual’s vocational and academic abilities. The Ministry of Defence should make it mandatory for individuals joining the armed forces with no prior qualifications at Level 1 or above to take this qualification.

Furthermore the government should, much as it has done for student loans, make available guaranteed low-interest loans for veterans to undertake vocational training and part-time academic qualifications. Whilst a ‘full-fat’ replication of the American model of veteran education might not be suitable for Britain, it should be possible for interested and motivated ex-servicemen to study for qualifications which will help them in their career and life. The repayment schedule should also be similar to student loans, enabling the cost of the qualification to be spread out over a long period; all remaining debt would be forgiven after a certain number of years, meaning that veterans would not be concerned about the total amount of debt but instead the annual repayment.

Building upon this, the government should be able to facilitate the entry of veterans into the labour market through setting up exchanges where companies can advertise for positions (both full-time and part-time) which are particularly suited to ex-servicemen. The appeal of veterans to employers is both specific and general. Specifically, they have considerable knowledge and training that would make them useful in jobs such as security or sports training; generally, their resilience and leadership qualities render them an asset in all industries. The initial cost of setting up these exchanges could be covered by a subscription fee that both employers and servicemen would pay to gain access to them, with employers paying commensurately more.

Beyond these core structural points for improving veteran involvement in the workplace, there are a raft of smaller measures which the government could undertake to help veterans in particular need. There has been a 26% rise in veterans seeking help from charities like Combat Stress, while Royal British Legion statistics show 8% of veterans have mental help of some kind. There should be one unitary body which handles veteran mental health – one centralised system which can best provide care specifically tailored for ex-servicemen. And for the small but significant number of veterans who are homeless, the current statutory guidelines should be altered to make it easier to access council housing. At present, ex-military applicants in England need to show that they are ‘vulnerable as a result of time spent in the Armed Forces’ – this should be modified so that, as is presently the case in Wales, veterans are automatically given priority.

The Armed Forces Covenant is a good and important document, the adoption of which has helped show Britain’s soldiers that their country will not forget about them during and after their service. But more needs to be done to ensure that, after leaving the military, ex-servicemen are able to be integrated into society and the labour market as well as possible. This is not merely a moral imperative for Britain; it is also an economic one.  Barclays has argued that the UK economy could lose out by almost £1.5bn over five years if veterans aren’t sufficiently engaged in the labour market. The British government needs to think creatively about ways to reaffirm its commitment towards those who put their life at risk to defend their country.

David Verghese is a member of Bright Blue and former winner of the Tamworth Prize. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.