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UK Veterans’ Affairs office failure to collect data on veteran homelessness or suicide raises concerns

The UK Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs does not currently collect comprehensive or national data on homelessness or suicides amongst veterans, a Freedom of Information request submitted by Action on Armed Violence has revealed.

When asked by AOAV to share reports or data that the MOD had on the number of veterans who are homeless and the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the last decade, the reply was that the information “is not held by the Ministry of Defence.”

Veterans’ homelessness charity advert in a Plymouth paper, where junior minister Johnny Mercer lives

Despite the MOD listing other ways that levels of suicides and homelessness were gauged, the lack of such data raises questions about how Johnny Mercer MP, who holds veteran-focused ministerial roles in both the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office, can evaluate his claim to make Britain the “best place in the world to be a veteran”. 

The issues of veteran homelessness and suicides are acknowledged as of specific concern by veterans’ advocates, with many prominent charities providing housing specifically for veterans in crisis and others offering mental health counselling.

When asked about how many veterans are homeless, the MOD replied: “the information you requested is not held.”

In their response, the MOD referred to data from The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), funded by The Mayor of London’s Office. It reported that 2% of people in London using outreach services in 2018/19 were “UK nationals with a history of service in the Armed Forces”.

The MOD response also referred to unspecified ‘independent research’ that shows that the figure for rough sleeping for veterans across the whole of the UK is 3%. Applying this percentage to the whole of England suggests that as many as 128 out of 4,266 people estimated as sleeping rough each night would be veterans. 

The MOD also cited the latest (Homelessness Case Level Information Collection data, from April to June 2020, for England. This shows that of 63,570 households “owed a homelessness duty”, 410 had support needs because they had previously served in the armed forces.

But the truth is that, without comprehensive government data on homelessness throughout the United Kingdom, the issue will remain highly emotive and misunderstood.

Homeless veteran figures were recently scrutinised by the Reuters fact-checking team, after several Facebook posts were circulated this summer that stated: “over 6,000 homeless veterans who have given their service to our country will be sleeping rough on our streets tonight. Nearly 48,000 illegal migrants who haven’t given anything to our country will be sleeping in 3/4/5 Star Hotels tonight. The UK in 2020.”

“The claim that there are 6,000 UK veterans sleeping rough is… unsubstantiated,” concluded the article.

Mr Mercer has claimed in Parliament that: “The Government has taken a number of measures to identify… veterans who are experiencing, or who are at risk of, homelessness”, though creating a dataset on numbers of veterans is not part of that effort. In 2016, he voted against an opposition bill ‘to end rough sleeping and take action to address the root causes of rising homelessness.’

When asked for the “the number of veterans who have committed suicide”, the MOD also said: “suicide data for all veterans of the UK Armed Forces is not currently captured by the Government.”

Such a failure to collate data on veteran suicides challenges how the Office for Veteran Affairs will be able to see if improvements in Veteran care leads to a reduction in suicides. In March of this year, Mercer said in Parliament that: “I accept Governments have not acted fast enough to update our data and understanding of military suicide.”

The MOD did point to a yet-to-be published study that will “investigate causes of death, including suicide, amongst all those who served in the UK Armed Forces between 2001 and 2014, covering combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It was also announced in March 2020 that the Ministries for Defence and Health together will fund Manchester University to examine the 12 months leading up to veterans who have taken their own lives in the last five years.

Suicide is clearly an issue with both serving personnel and veterans. A recent study by Action on Armed Violence found that suicides in the ‘War on Terror’ accounted for 8% of non-combat related fatalities among serving personnel. Since 2001, there have been eight suicides recorded during overseas operations, four in Iraq and four in Afghanistan.

Again, the issue is highly emotive and often poorly understood. Previous studies concerning causes of death after the 1982 Falklands War and the 1990/1 Gulf War “show that suicide rates amongst veterans were lower than comparative rates in the civilian population.” As of 2013, 7% (101 of 1,478) of deaths of Falklands veterans were from suicide. As of 2015, 12% (216 of 1,746) of Gulf veterans fatalities were from ‘intentional self-harm and events of undetermined intent.” 

In England and Wales in 2019, suicides accounted for 1.1% of all deaths (5,691 of 530,841), although suicide was the main cause of death amongst male age-groups of 20-34 (28.2%) and 35-49 year-olds (12.8%).

AOAV is a charity founded on the central belief that the causes and consequence of violence can only be understood though the compilation of quality data and evidence.

We encourage the MOD to create a baseline of data on veteran suicides and homelessness so as to understand better the problem and to counter populist myths and misconceptions on this matter.

Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, Iain Overton, said: “The MOD has stated repeatedly their intention to make Britain the best place in the world to be a veteran. The Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs needs, then, to collate data on these issues, otherwise how can their claims of betterment stand up if they do not have baseline figures to show improvement?”