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In 2011, the UK Government published The Armed Forces Covenant, “a promise from the nation” that those who serve or have served are treated fairly when accessing public or commercial services. Research has explored veterans’ interactions with the health, housing and the criminal justice system. But their experiences of the UK benefits system have gone unexplored – until now. Our research is based on interviews with 68 veterans currently claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Universal Credit (UC) and 19 key stakeholders (charities, voluntary and community organisations and policy officials). The study represents the first UK project to focus specifically on how veterans experience the benefits system and raises questions about whether they are being appropriately supported within this system.

Why is this an important issue?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has made a series of adjustments to Jobcentre Plus (JCP) services as part its commitment to the Covenant. While such initiatives are welcome, our research suggests a disparity between the commitments “on paper” and the reality on the ground for those actually using the benefits system. In particular, it highlights the difficulties veterans face navigating the system and the variable quality of the “support” that is currently provided to this group.

Navigating the system

Most veterans we interviewed had found work very shortly after leaving service. But many had hit a period of “crisis” and were consequently having to claim benefits. The process of applying for benefits was often particularly challenging. As one participant told us:

It’s like they put the needle in the haystack of needles and said ‘off you go, here’s your metal detector’, which is just picking up the stack of needles … It’s like it’s all hidden. Like we’ve got this secret pot of money that you may or may not be entitled to and we’re not going to tell you.

The value placed on self-sufficiency, strength of character and resilience while in the Armed Forces meant that veterans often saw claiming benefits as a reduction in status from a position of respect. Some veterans also struggled to cope with the “digital by default” approach inherent in Universal Credit. For example, one veteran in his 50s said he was sanctioned because he did not have the IT skills to use the system.

The need for support

Most of our respondents had disclosed their ex-Forces status to JCP. But responses to disclosure seem to have varied significantly, with some Jobcentres appearing to have dedicated staff who worked with veterans while others did not. The majority of people were receiving support from organisations outside of JCP such as charities and housing providers. Overall, the quality of the support provided by JCP appeared to be highly variable and, while there was evidence of good practice, in some cases the approach of staff was considered wholly inappropriate. One veteran claimed an advisor had said “I think you should be over it by now” when he told him about his PTSD from an incident in 1988.

The social security system is in a period of transition. With the roll out of UC, alongside the new Work and Health Programme, the time is right to ask questions of the Covenant commitments and scrutinise how these are actually working on the ground. We urge policymakers and practitioners to look at our findings and recommendations and give them due consideration going forward.

The research team will be following up with the participants later this year, and a final report will be published in 2019. To find out more about the project, contact Dr Lisa Scullion at L.Scullion@salford.ac.uk

Dr Lisa Scullion and Dr Katy Jones, University of Salford