I’m writing this for “Frank”, who I met by chance at a soup kitchen. Frank was clearly in a bad state and had been in and out of prison over many years. As we chatted, something about his bearing hinted that underneath the scruffy exterior was someone with a military background. I took a punt and asked him when he had left the armed forces.
He told me in a matter-of-fact way how he had left the Army nearly 30 years ago and that not a day had passed without him missing it.
We talked about his service in Northern Ireland, how he’d experienced some tough times, and how it had clearly affected him afterwards. He had missed the routine of military life and fallen into a life of petty crime. I asked why he had never gone to the Royal British Legion for help, and two words shot back: “Too proud.”
Frank’s story is typical of a small number of veterans. But like many of them, Frank’s previous service was never considered in any of his court appearances. He didn’t raise it for fear of bringing the military “into disrepute”.
The military court martial system is configured to understand the impact service can have on some veterans, but the civilian justice system is not. That’s why I put forward Labour proposals a year ago calling for the Government to consult on how to improve rehabilitation services for veterans who find themselves in the courts.
The initial reaction from ministers was positive. An official cross-party review was launched and I agreed to serve as a formal adviser. But it lost all momentum when the chair, Rory Stewart, was replaced by Stephen Phillips, who began juggling the review with his highly paid work as a barrister.
The review lagged behind schedule and was published just before Christmas – six months late. What’s more, it was no longer conducted on a cross-party basis. I was culled from the list of formal advisers and heard complaints from other advisers that they were not properly consulted.
There are some useful recommendations in the report, such as formally recording how many veterans end up in prison. But it fails to address how some veterans can be prevented from falling into a life of crime – a glaring omission. And the Veterans Treatment Courts model, hugely successful in the US, was dismissed. Surely this should have been investigated more thoroughly?
We should not tire of saying that where people – like Frank – have served our country in the armed forces, we have a lifelong responsibility to look after them. That’s not about being soft on crime, it’s about properly understanding the effect that operational service can have and cutting reoffending. That’s in everyone’s interests.
Dan Jarvis is a Labour justice spokesman and a former major in the Parachute Regiment
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