Probation and armed forces veterans: needs and services

Roger Grimshaw
Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Armed Services Covenant marks a government commitment to make sure that armed services leavers are not disadvantaged in their dealings with public services. In 2014, the Phillips Review took up this question in relation to the criminal justice system. Now that probation has undergone a considerable transformation project, how is it managing its caseload of ex-armed services personnel?

Our profiling project, Profile of provision for armed forces veterans under probation supervision, written in partnership with the Probation Institute and the Forces in Mind Development Trust, was meant to map the landscape of services, review the evidence on need and identify future pathways for service development. In addition to our update on progress since the Phillips review, it is well worth examining further corroborating evidence, from a Centre for Social Justice report, in order to reflect on the full implications for social justice.


It will not be fully clear for some time how many on the probation caseload have served in the armed forces, because uniform guidelines were not issued till 2016. How far veterans may have needs different from the rest of the caseload is therefore not definitively understood. Available evidence indicates that offences of violence loom relatively large among the veteran caseload. In broad-brush terms the pattern of needs among known veterans appears similar to the rest of the caseload, but until there is clearer identification and understanding of specific needs we cannot be sure. Significantly, there is a body of evidence which links such violence to early disadvantage and to experience in combat.

The service landscape remains uneven and diverse: some Community Rehabilitation Companies have appointed service subcontractors; some have in-house provision. The National Probation Service is still developing its service offer for veterans. NOMS co-finances specific services, with links to armed service charities, but their future may be affected by the fate of the European Social Fund which supports them. In Wales, however, we were informed about an integrated services strategy.

While Liaison and Diversion Services are set to be expanded, the pilot projects identified relatively few veterans, reinforcing the suggestion that veterans are reluctant to reveal themselves in criminal  justice settings. There are other resources outside criminal justice: the NHS has several specialist services for veterans; armed service charities enjoy relatively secure funding that could in principle be deployed to assist people captured by criminal justice. The problem seems to be establishing firm procedures for reducing criminal justice supervision and engaging veterans with alternative services.

Without investment in assessment, research and evaluation, it is hard to envisage a coherent future for services, already beset by the uncertainties of Transforming Rehabilitation.

Need and social justice

In many respects a Centre for Social Justice report in 2014 mapped out the terrain of underlying need among veterans in a way that informs a social justice critique. It collated evidence on needs connected with housing, employment, mental health, alcohol and drug use, and crime. The report’s evidence on unmet need at transition from the armed forces reinforces the case for attention to the life histories as well as service experiences of disadvantaged young men, especially those leaving the Army: early life disadvantages were significant precursors to difficult and volatile experiences of transition from service life. There is also evidence showing how a veteran with unmet needs can fall foul of the criminal justice system’s failings.

We should query any paternalistic state model in which the exceptionality of ex-armed services personnel is simply taken for granted. It should not be overlooked that there are others, such as fire and rescue professionals, who put their lives at risk in the public interest. Indeed there is a case for redressing the injustices of unmet need, using the resources of Covenant funding, for example; better organised and funded services can help secure benefits for individuals who fall through the existing gaps.

But the question of root causes persists: how can the state tolerate a cycle of exploitation in which poverty and deprivation give young men few options other than to join the armed services, only for them to leave damaged, angry, disturbed, and unable to re-integrate? Who is really paying the price of war?