Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
At times this year, it has felt like we are at war. In the battle against Covid-19, the many lives tragically lost and the impact of lockdown on our individual freedoms have often brought echoes of wartime life.
The reaction of the nation to the pandemic invoked the ‘blitz spirit’. The sight of military personnel mobilising to help build NHS Nightingale hospitals here in the West Midlands and elsewhere instilled national
As we face this national crisis, I want to use this column to highlight the challenges facing our veterans today – as well as championing one group of service personnel whose sacrifice has gone unrecognised for
Here in the diverse West Midlands, we are deeply aware of the debt owed to veterans, including the immense contribution of the commonwealth nations. One of our region’s most notable military monuments, in Smethwick,
is a bronze statue of a Sikh soldier which honours personnel of all faiths from the Indian subcontinent who fought for Britain during World War One.
I am proud to have been recruited by the West Midlands’ Caribbean community to help raise funds to erect a suitable tribute to the 16,000 men of the British West Indies Regiment who fought at Passchendaele, Ypres and Poelcappelle.
But while the hardships of this year may have rekindled thoughts of the past, it’s vital that we ensure today’s veterans get the support they need now.
Our veterans, and the essential networks that support them, have been hard hit by the effects of the pandemic. A clear indication of this is the tough choices now facing armed forces charity Help For Heroes, which saw demand for its services rise by 33 per cent during May and June – as the consequences of the national lockdown impacted on veterans’ mental health – while seeing fundraising activities cancelled. As a result, it faces the difficult decision to close its recovery centres.
There are 76,000 veterans living in the West Midlands, all of whom will have made the difficult move back to civvy street. Former service personnel of working age are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the general population. Some estimates suggest that in the UK 700,000 veterans aged 16 to 64 are unemployed, with personnel who leave the services early most like to find themselves jobless.
When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, I was determined to ensure that our region reached out to help veterans in their present and future challenges.
My successful Mayor’s Mentors programme, which supports more than 6000 young people across the West Midlands, was rolled out to help members of the armed forces returning to civilian life. Mayor’s Mentors for Veterans recruited business mentors to support individuals for 12 months, providing friendship, ideas and contacts to help them back into the workplace.
Another successful scheme provides veterans with both an introduction to construction skills to enable them to be site-ready for work and, crucially, guarantees them a job interview on completion of the course.
After completing the course, veterans are supported on their journey to work through the National Careers Service for as long as they need, regardless of whether their first interview is a success. Those who are not offered a job immediately are added to the West Midlands ‘site-ready talent pool’ – which is shared with construction recruiters and provides a list of people who are ready for work immediately – helping them access jobs working on projects like HS2.
In addition, the WMCA advertises its own vacancies on the Ministry of Defence’s career transition partnership
website and provides a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans provided they meet essential job criteria.
Finally, we are determined to ensure that veterans who fall into rough sleeping can get support and help from specialists who understand not only their military experiences but the specific challenges they can
face as a consequence of their service to our nation.
In June, to coincide with Armed Forces Day, the WMCA announced a grant to the Royal British Legion to help veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. During the pandemic, the Legion has been working
hard alongside local authorities to bring rough-sleeping veterans off the streets and into emergency accommodation.
Now, the Legion is expecting a significant increase in demand for its crisis support services as Covid-19 support packages, including rent and mortgage relief agreements, come to an end.
The £20,000 WMCA grant will support veterans, with up to £750 each, who through no fault of their own may have built up rent arrears and faced other difficulties as a result of the pandemic. The individual grants will help to pay for vital items such as a deposit for accommodation or first month’s rent, travel passes to find work, and basic furnishings.
In 2019, we signed the Armed Forces Covenant – a pledge acknowledging that those who serve or who have served should be treated with fairness and respect, as should their families. We take our responsibility towards the covenant very seriously indeed.
Last week, our commitment to the covenant was recognised by the Ministry of Defence with a Silver Award, highlighting the WMCA’s support for the Armed Forces and veterans in the region. While I am pleased that our work has received this recognition, I know that there is always more that must be done to help those who have served our country.
The challenges of this pandemic, just as in wartime, mean that vulnerable veterans can fall through gaps in the net meant to catch them. We cannot allow this to happen.
At the same time, I believe we must also ensure that, in a diverse and inclusive UK, all veterans groups are remembered and honoured for their sacrifice – which brings me back to the British West Indies Regiment.
Through numerous conflicts, men and women from 18 British Caribbean Islands have joined up to help the Mother Country. They remain part of the backbone of today’s British military today. Yet there is no national monument in the UK honouring their sacrifice.
I am proud to be associated with The National Caribbean Monument Charity, which aims to raise £500,000 for a monument at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
Sculptor Martin Jennings has been commissioned to design the monument, which will join the 360 monuments in the Arboretum, including the Armed Forces Memorial, which bears the name of every serviceman or woman
killed since 1945.
This monument will help to provide a lasting reminder of the sacrifice made by Caribbean personnel in serving Queen and country at a time when Britain needed them most. This is part of the dent society owes to veterans.
When people sign up to serve, they are taking on a role that often impacts on the rest of their lives. Today, as we face Covid-19 shoulder to shoulder, we owe them practical support. For tomorrow, we must ensure that their sacrifice is honoured and remembered.