10/11/2015 12:38 GMT | Updated 10/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Under-Served: The Gaps in Veteran Support, and What Needs to Change

The Armed Forces Covenant has become a touchstone for those campaigning for better support for veterans. Only last week, Labour MP Dave Anderson invoked our obligations to veterans under the Covenant in order to push for fuller compensation for veterans exposed to asbestos during their Service. The Armed Forces Covenant codifies and renews the duty of all parts of society to ensure that veterans are treated fairly, and to guarantee access to all the services and support to which they are morally entitled. In this period of remembrance for our war dead, it is appropriate that we should reflect on how we might better fulfill this obligation.

The new Demos report Under-Served, authored by Ally Paget and myself, sheds light on one of the outstanding gaps in our support for the veteran community which needs to be addressed; the care and support provided to working age veterans in residential care.

Our report is based on interviews with working age veterans in veteran charity care homes across the UK, as well a leading experts in the sector. While the overwhelming majority of veterans who become seriously injured or ill during or after their service go on to live full independent lives, for some, residential care is a necessity. Our research suggests that this small group, which contains those veterans with some of the most pressing care needs, is often overlooked as a result of its size. Some of the working age veterans we spoke to found themselves lonely, isolated and depressed, often in care homes with a much older average age, often far from their families.

Some of this is unavoidable. The specialist care needs of some veterans can mean that there are only some homes that can effectively care for them, and this often requires relocation. However, more could be done to support their social and psychological needs. In many Armed Forces charity care homes, we saw great examples of best practice, like individualised care plans, and social programmes that took the needs of working age veterans into account. But at the same time, too many working age veterans are falling between the cracks.

More needs to be done to share care best practice between generalist and Armed Forces care homes. Better processes for the collection of data, and for the sharing of that data between the MOD and third sector data, are required to ensure that all veterans can access all of the support to which they are entitled. More work needs to be undertaken to sign-post veterans to the services available to them. Our report provides a series of recommendations on how to achieve this.

Our research focused on a small number of individuals, thought the lack of national data makes an accurate estimate of the number of working age veterans in residential care impossible. Yet it touches on broader, structural challenges within the Armed Forces charity sector in the UK, which we are yet to effectively remedy.

The Armed Forces Covenant lays out society's obligations to veterans. But even after a series of government reviews - including Lord Ashcroft's high profile 2014 Veteran's Transition Review - quite how best to do that moving forward remains unclear. What is clear is that we need to change, in a quite fundamental way, how we support our veterans.

The Armed Forces charity sector has, in a particularly British way, developed organically over a long period. Armed Forces charities have often been established in response to the specific and immediate needs of veterans in the aftermath of Britain's major conflicts. After the Great War, in the absence of state support, 11,407 Armed Forces charities sprung up to assist veterans returning from conflict, providing everything from accommodation to medical care to assistance finding employment. Many of these charities - as well as those set up after the Second World War - continue to fulfil important functions today. Because of this, some of Britain's 2,050 Armed Forces charities provide types of support which some might think should be part of the fundamental services the state delivers to veterans. This includes things like longer-term transitional support for mentally ill veterans leaving the Armed Forces, and elements of social care for disabled working age veterans in residential care. When such an array of charities are providing such a range of services, in the absence of effective data-sharing and signposting, it is inevitable that some veterans - often those in the greatest need - are left behind.

At the same time, expectations regarding the extent of state responsibility to our service-personnel are changing. While Armed Forces charities play an important and often irreplaceable role, this should never mean that some veterans lose out, and the state - as the Covenant demonstrates - can no longer avoid its duty to veterans into their post-service lives.

Perhaps most significantly, the veteran population of the UK is declining rapidly. In 2005, there were 4.8million veterans in the UK. Today, there are 2.83million, and in 2020 there will be 2.48million. In the face of such significant demographic change, the Armed Forces charity sector will have to evolve in some fundamental ways. There has never been such a clear opportunity to address some of the persistent inadequacies of our current system. Only by embracing the opportunities that this change will present can we ensure that more effective support is available, not only working age veterans in care, but all those veterans currently being under-served.