by Claire Williams, National organiser of the Armed Service Advice Project (ASAP).
This column first appeared in the Herald newspaper on 26 August 2020.
Managing a project that helps our Armed Forces community has taught me one thing above all else. They need a lot more support than they currently get.
The Armed Service Advice Project (ASAP) is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Funded by Poppyscotland and other military charities, ASAP is run by the Citizens Advice network. It gives support to both former and current military personnel in Scotland when they experience problems like debt, unemployment, homelessness and poverty.
Over the decade, we’ve given 92,000 pieces of advice to 15,900 people. Along the way we’ve put £17.6 million in their pockets, through benefits and other grants.
I am incredibly proud of that, and of course the credit must go to our fantastic advisers. The feedback we get from clients across Scotland shows that the support they get from their advisers literally changes their lives, often from desperation to new-found hope.
But despite that pride, I must admit I’m finding the birthday celebrations this week a little bittersweet. Here’s why.
Nearly half of the cases we deal with involve helping people navigate a social security system that is bewildering and unnecessarily complex. This is especially true for those with multiple health conditions, or who don’t fit neatly into official categories. It is a system that makes it much harder to deliver solutions for our clients than it ought to be.
Of course the flaws in our benefits system are a problem not just for people from the military community but for the general population. But ASAP clients tend to have particular challenges that others don’t have. Military life can leave them with scars - physical or mental - that mean they require a special level of support. They may never have had to think about applying for benefits before. The UK government’s ‘Digital by Default’ agenda pushes people to manage their benefits claims online. But some of our clients simply don’t have the tools to do that, or they lack the skills or confidence. Our support helps them through these barriers, but it takes a lot of time and dedication.
The statistics I quoted above are impressive, but they don’t tell the human story of what ASAP is all about.
They don’t, for example, tell you about Gerry. After leaving the forces, Gerry’s marriage broke down. In poor mental health, he was re-housed in a rural area away from his friends and family and he quickly spiralled into debt. He refused to engage with any support, except for his ASAP adviser. He trusted her and she was able to help him get a better home, a job and the social security he was entitled to. But this takes time, hard work and care. Above all else, Gerry needed to be listened to. His adviser’s patience and empathy pulled him through. This kind of dedication is invaluable, but it doesn’t show up easily on balance sheets.
Then there’s Shaun. His military experience left him paranoid. He too had been moved to an isolated home. He couldn’t engage with any support networks - believing they were all in conspiracies against him - except for his ASAP adviser.
It is very delicate, dealing with clients like Shaun. They often just want to talk, and they will email or phone at any time to do that. Establishing boundaries is part of the way we help them, but again this kind of emotional support is difficult to quantify.
I could tell you about so many more cases like Gerry’s and Shaun’s (I have of course changed their names). Many ASAP clients are people who have been passed around by different support agencies and see us as a last resort.
But despite these challenges, it is an enormous privilege to deal with people from the Armed Forces community. They are extraordinary people who deserve extraordinary levels of support.
They generally hate being described as ‘heroes.’ They don’t see themselves as such, and many are even embarrassed to be asking for help.
They shouldn’t be. The support they need should be a priority for our society, not an afterthought. A charity like ASAP should only be there to pick up a small number of cases; those who fall through the cracks in the system. Sadly, the numbers we see are much higher than that, and it's clear that the cracks are bigger than they should be.
So yes, let's blow out the candles and celebrate the fantastic job ASAP has done these past ten years for Scotland's military personnel and veterans. But let’s also look to improve the structures that are supposedly there to support them in the first place.
And most importantly, if anyone in the Armed Forces community needs advice or support on any issue, our help is just a phone call or email away. 0808 800 1007 or ASAP@cas.org.uk.