A national charity has called for a change in the law to settle a row at the heart of Government and make monitoring the rate of suicides among military veterans compulsory.
An investigation by JPIMedia Investigations last summer – which prompted a national debate – revealed that the Government does not monitor how many former service personnel take their own lives, amid fears that the number of cases is spiralling.
Allied nations like the US, Australia and Canada all record the number of veteran suicides closely, having found significant increases in the past decade.
And Fylde coast veteran Rick Clement, who suffered life changing injuries while on tour in Afghanistan in 2010, has backed calls for the UK to follow suit, saying it was “a really big issue” in this country as well.
Campaigners say official UK figures are now also vital to help traumatised war heroes.
Since we highlighted the issue, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood announced the Government would begin a study into suicide rates among veterans who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also said in November that it was his ambition “to understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not”.
However, JPIMedia Investigations can now reveal a row at the heart of Government over the issue, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claiming it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.
MPs on the Defence Select Committee have also been keenly pursuing the issue of military mental health, publishing their first report last July. It recommended that the Ministry of Defence work with the justice departments across the four UK nations to work out from existing suicide records whether someone had been a veteran.
A second report by the committee, due to be published on Monday, is expected to further press the Government for progress.
Jeff Williams, a former Royal Marine sergeant major and campaigner with the Veterans Against Suicide group, said he is “devastated” to hear that the MoJ has ruled out support from coroners.
He said: “I am not surprised but I am pretty devastated because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening.
“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”
His group has recorded the suspected suicide of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far this year, with 80 former and current service personnel believed to have taken their lives in 2018.
It should be straightforward for coroners to ask families if their loved ones were veterans, he said.
His organisation can verify “with one phone call” whether someone was a veteran or not.
“This is just a cop-out in my opinion,” he said.
Dr Walter Busuttil, medical director of national veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said it is now up to MPs to step in and make it a statutory responsibility on coroners to record veteran suicides.
“If they want to record things properly then they are going to have to change the law,” he said.
He said it sounded a viable idea for coroners’ IT systems to be linked to MoD pension records, to verify if someone was a veteran.
“There are precedents, it can be done,” he said.
However, the MoJ said it was too complex for coroners to record veteran suicides, in particular because of the potential difficulties of accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.
“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” a spokesperson said.
The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback. A spokeswoman said: “We take the well-being of all those who have served extremely seriously and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”
Last week Mr Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jackets Captain, offered a public apology to the grieving families of veterans and serving personnel who took their lives this year and last, vowing to fight on in addressing the issue.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, help and advice is available from these organisations:
Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Veterans UK: 0808 1914218 (8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280 (weekdays, between 9am and 5pm
Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week)