It’s time to buck up and help our heroes Captain Mercer – what’s happened to the promised new Ministry for Veterans?

Article published in The Sun, 26 September 2019. © Richard Kemp

Another Defence Committee report, another litany of betrayal of the men and women who sign up to fight for our country.

To add insult to injury, virtually all the failings listed in the latest report come up year after year, and some of them date back to the day I joined the Army 42 years ago.

As an infantry battalion commander in Londonderry, I discovered stalactites that would have impressed any geologist hanging from leaking water pipes in one of the Victorian accommodation blocks.

The squalid barracks we recently vacated near Cambridge had to be refurbished to make them fit for habitation by asylum seekers.

Troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan often found the living quarters there better than those they left behind in Britain.

As a taxpayer I am ashamed the Defence Committee reported yesterday that the same problems persist now.

Soldiers and their families do not expect to live in luxury but they do deserve hot showers and functioning central heating in winter.

Soldiers’ children are not only forced to endure degrading living conditions, many are also disadvantaged educationally by frequent movement as their parents are posted from garrison to garrison.

Again, as a commander I had to thump the desks of local headteachers and education authority bureaucrats to get them to admit Army children who had arrived during the school year.

The same problem also damages the quality of medical and dental treatment some spouses and children receive.

Forces families have been moving from barracks to barracks around the UK and overseas for hundreds of years.

Surely this problem can be completely eliminated in the 21st Century?

One of the greatest scandals the report highlights is the denial of the pensions owed to some war widows.

This only affects between 200 and 300 women, but each one has endured suffering and deprivation due to penny-pinching bureaucracy and lack of ministerial resolve.

Service personnel who are killed in action give everything for us. The least we can do is take care of those they leave behind.

These failings are immoral and they are a direct assault on military effectiveness and therefore the defence of our country.

Why? Because they corrode the morale of our servicemen and women.

However many ultra-sophisticated aircraft carriers, F35 combat fighters, tanks and missiles we supply, the morale of the fighting man will always remain the cornerstone of combat power.

High morale achieves miracles in battle, low morale leads to disaster and defeat.

Low morale also makes people vote with their feet, signing off for civilian jobs where they will be properly looked after.

This helps explain the woeful undermanning in the forces today, where recruiting has failed miserably to keep up with outflow.

Yet a government that hopes to plug the gaping hole by increasing recruitment of soldiers from the Commonwealth shoots itself in both feet. It has made it virtually impossible for many recruits to be joined here by their families due to petty bureaucracy that could be overcome at a stroke.

The Sun’s Never Forget Them campaign led the Government in July to create an Office for Veterans’ Affairs, with direct access to the Cabinet, with a new minister for Defence People and Veterans heading it.

At the same time the PM promised the Government would: ‘Do all it can to support our Armed Forces from the day they enlist and for the rest of their lives.’

No one expects overnight transformation.

But after two months we have not heard one single new idea on tackling all of these age-old problems from the minister, Johnny Mercer.

Mr Mercer is no ordinary politician. He’s a distinguished and courageous former soldier who fought in Afghanistan during three tours of duty and a man who I and many veterans admire and respect.

He went ‘on strike’ during Theresa May’s premiership in protest at the prosecution of British troops over historical allegations from the Northern Ireland campaign.

Yet only last week we witnessed the opening of a murder trial against an elderly former soldier for alleged crimes in Londonderry half a century ago.

Mr Mercer could not have done anything to prevent this.

But he has not explained to the public how he intends to halt the disgraceful hounding of veterans through the courts in what is the greatest betrayal of their own Armed Forces by any government in history.

In response to the Defence Committee report Mr Mercer tweeted: ‘I will offer a private informal session to the committee and update on every single issue raised.’

Such discretion would be the way of a soldier but it is not what we expect from political leaders.

The British public, as well as serving soldiers and veterans, are outraged by the abuse of our troops and those who have served.

What we demand is to be told about solutions that will be actioned as soon as possible.

Mr Mercer has experience of the issues raised in the latest report and served on the Defence Committee.

Since entering Parliament in 2015 he has campaigned energetically to sort out the plight of both servicemen and veterans, describing it as his main mission.

If he was new to the forces’ problems we could understand he might need time to gain understanding and consider possible options.

But he was selected because he has a deep understanding and experience and should have been able to announce his programme on day one.

I worked at the centre of government for years and know the quagmire that confronts a minister trying to fight through a bureaucracy resistant to change and adept at wielding the civil service machinery that exists to frustrate progress.

But Mr Mercer must find the resolve to overcome these obstacles. He should adopt Churchill’s dictum of ‘action this day’.

There is no time for private briefings, blusterings and paralysis.

Our troops are deployed on operations around the globe today. And who knows when the next intense battle will begin, whether over Russian expansion, Iranian aggression, or Chinese provocation, or something totally unforeseen?

We expect our fighting men and women to lay down their lives if necessary.

It is vital that the Government and Mr Mercer do everything they can to return their courage and dedication in deeds as well as words.