Four million former servicemen and women are to be given veterans’ cards to ensure they get priority treatment for NHS healthcare and housing, and discounts for services such as transport.
The Ministry of Defence plans to introduce the cards at the beginning of 2010, The Independent has learnt, in an attempt to begin repairing the damage done to the military covenant between nation and armed forces under New Labour.
The launch is expected to be formally announced this autumn with the first veterans’ cards handed to new armed forces leavers in spring next year, before being rolled out to the country’s four million former service personnel.
The aim is to ensure that those who have risked their lives in combat get front-of-the-queue treatment and financial benefits. Similar systems in the US and France offer veterans subsidised travel and discounts from private companies.
At a time when the armed forces have been stretched to breaking point in two bloody conflicts, there has been mounting anger that the priority treatment promised by the Government 18 months ago has failed to materialise. "We now need to make it happen," the Defence minister Kevan Jones told this newspaper. "We will provide veterans’ ID cards so the person can say ‘I have served in the services’ and get priority access to treatment." Mr Jones spoke in response to this newspaper’s campaign to get better mental health treatment for traumatised troops, launched after the Victoria Cross winner Johnson Beharry – the country’s most decorated serving soldier – revealed his own combat-related trauma and urged the Government to stop failing his fellow soldiers with sub-standard or non-existent care.
Lieutenant General Sir Freddie Viggers, who until last year was Adjutant-General in charge of personnel, welcomed the veterans’ card. "It is about value and self worth, not about a piece of plastic," he said. "We carry these cards for the whole of our service and when we leave we are required to hand them in. Psychologically, it is a bad thing. It is a little bit of plastic but it represents who you are and what you did."
The Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, former commanding officer with the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, said: "It is about bloody time. At last, a reasonable, sensible minister [Mr Jones] who listens to ideas from across the political spectrum."
The categories in the Forces Discount Scheme currently include some retraining, sports clubs, childcare, insurance, holidays and travel.
Veterans and senior soldiers have called on the Government to acknowledge a predicted "explosion" of traumatised troops from recent conflicts and provide specialist mental healthcare. "No one is suggesting there is not a problem," Mr Jones said, "but we need a grounded debate to understand it."
He admitted that many former servicemen were "lost" in the NHS system and vowed to ensure every GP was made to record whether or not a patient had served in the forces.
However, he refused to concede that former service personnel needed separate, dedicated care and risked the wrath of charities by suggesting they should fund provision of military health advisers. "Combat Stress [the charity] gets £3m of taxpayers’ money. I don’t think the Government should do it all. It is not about money. It is about the system working better."
To sign our petition for better care for Britain’s returning troops, go to independent.co.uk/veteranscampaign.
By Terri Judd