Ex-veterans minister Johnny Mercer gives explosive evidence about neglect of military welfare body

A government body set up to support former soldiers was so neglected that at one stage it was staffed entirely by two people – and didn’t even have an office to work from.

Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 7:00 am
12/01/1994 Soldiers attempt to clear the area in Spamount Street, Belfast, as a booby trap bomb explodes. A woman soldier was earlier shot in the neck and back by a sniper in the area

That is the remarkable evidence put forward by former veterans minister Johnny Mercer, as he set out what he believes the major failings were of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA).

The Conservatives set up the office in mid-2019, and it was mentioned in the Tories’ General Election manifesto.

It was led by MP Mr Mercer, himself a former soldier, who was given the title of “Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence People and Veterans”.

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Johnny Mercer in the committee on 11-05-21

He quit in April this year after getting into a dispute over what he believed was a lack of commitment to protecting the UK’s 2.2 million veterans from prosecution (among other issues).

He was summoned yesterday to answer questions before Parliament’s Defence Committee.

Mr Mercer defended Boris Johnson over the handling over veterans affairs, saying the Prime Minister is “as an individual, deeply committed” to helping ex-personnel.

But he noted that with Brexit and a pandemic to deal with, he had been “an incredibly busy man”.

He went on to say: “The concept of the OVA undoubtedly is a step change in what we do in veterans’ care in this country.

“But it has to be done in the correct way.

“You can’t just have an OVA, release the press release, and then not do anything about it.

“You have to empower it properly. It can’t just be bolted on to the most junior minister in the MoD...

“It doesn’t need a huge budget, a huge workforce, a huge department.

“But it does need the kind of drive and authority to deliver it on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and it certainly didn’t have that and I hope that changes in the weeks ahead.

“When I left, we still didn’t have an office...

“It was extraordinary. At one stage all the staff had been taken, and I had no idea about it – and it was just myself and David Richmond [a former military commander] left.

“And it took me two years to get a meeting with the Prime Minister.

“If you’re delivering what is a key manifesto promise – not only that but the difficult stuff about the Overseas Bill and stuff like that – you’ve just got no chance of getting out of the starting block.”

He also talked about being blocked from speaking to the press, recalling how “a senior individual in No. 10” (whom he would not name) had instructed him not to go on the Today radio show to speak about veterans’ mental health.

This individual claimed that the order had come directly from Boris Johnson.

“I spoke to the Prime Minister – and he’d made no such [demand] at all,” Mr Mercer said.

“The idea that the a special advisor with absolutely no background in the military, had never won anything in politics or anything like that, can come and tell me what they think is the best political route through, for example, for the Overseas Bill, is ridiculous.

“You’ve got unqualified people giving pretty important advice.”

Upon receiving messages such as “No. 10 says no”, Mr Mercer would often then try and find out who specifically in No. 10 Downing Street had said no – but often got nowhere.

“Who in No. 10?” he would ask.

“No. 10” the response would come.

Mr Mercer would reply: “What, like the door? The door says no?

“Literally – you couldn’t get beyond that.”

More from this reporter:

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