The Office for Veterans’ Affairs Annual Conference was recently held in York, and brought together key figures and experts to discuss the pivotal role of evidence-based decision-making, particularly emphasising its importance for veterans across the UK. The event was attended by the NI Veterans Commissioner, Danny Kinahan, and Liz Brown, Head of the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Support Office, in support and representation of Northern Ireland veterans.
The conference was opened by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Rt Hon Johnny Mercer MP, followed by notable speakers in the field of veteran healthcare and scientific research including Professor Shehan Hettiaratchy, Dr. Jonathan Leach OBE, and Professor Nicola Fear from the Academic Department of Military Mental Health, King’s College London. Their insights shed light on the critical role of research in shaping healthcare policies and practices for veterans.
Conference then heard about the realm of policy and evaluation, featuring talks by Matthew Seward, Interim Director of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, Janet Woolford of the Office of National Statistics, and Catherine Hutchinson, Head of Evaluation Task Force and Chief Social Researcher for Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and No. 10. This theme of the conference was particularly important as it emphasised ‘demonstration of need’ and how evidence of need could help support financial spend and risk. This area really provided the crux of what is needed to help get projects, schemes and services over the quality line when it comes to funding.
The emphasis on evidence in senior decision-making was introduced by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, followed by a noteworthy session dedicated to women in the Armed Forces, with Sarah Atherton MP, Chair of the Women Veterans’ Strategy Advisory Group, the guest speaker. The global perspective was enriched by Dr. David Pedlar, who shared insights into the intersection of evidence and policy from a Canadian viewpoint.
The conference also delved into the realm of lived experiences, recognising their importance in shaping policies and support systems. Professor Dominic Murphy, Head of Research from Combat Stress, provided valuable insights into ‘Building Bridges and Breaking down Barriers: Supporting Underrepresented Groups to Engage with Services’. ‘Navigating the Minefield: Veterans, Trauma and Financial Support Systems’ was presented by Professor Lisa Scullion from the University of Salford. Prof Scullion addressed the unique challenges faced by veterans, emphasising the importance of understanding and responding to their lived experiences.
The session on ‘Bodies of Evidence’ explored the specific case of ‘Nuclear Test Veterans and Archive’, with Dr. Chris Hill from the University of South Wales providing expertise in this domain. This comprehensive approach to understanding the diverse challenges faced by veterans highlighted the complexity of their needs and the importance of tailoring support systems accordingly.
In summary, the conference underscored the crucial role of evidence-based decision-making in shaping policies and support systems for veterans throughout the UK. The diverse range of topics covered, from healthcare and scientific research, to policy, evaluation, and lived experiences, demonstrated a holistic approach to addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by veterans. The aim of making the UK the best place to be a veteran by 2028 is a significant task. However, the positive progress made in the last three years, including here in Northern Ireland, with respect to veteran support and recognition, is encouraging and we will strive to make further advances going forward.