Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'Our Military Represent the Best of British: Their Values, Courage and Patriotic Belief' in a Wide-Ranging Interview, Prime Minister David Cameron Applauds Our Homeless Veterans Campaign and Tells Evening Standard Owner Evgeny Lebedev That Relations with Vladimir Putin Can Be Mended

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'Our Military Represent the Best of British: Their Values, Courage and Patriotic Belief' in a Wide-Ranging Interview, Prime Minister David Cameron Applauds Our Homeless Veterans Campaign and Tells Evening Standard Owner Evgeny Lebedev That Relations with Vladimir Putin Can Be Mended

Article excerpt

Byline: Evgeny Lebedev

'THE Prime Minister will be down in a few minutes," said the charming housekeeper, "once he's finished taking exercise." Of all the men (and one distinguished woman) for whom Chequers has been a country retreat since 1921, few were as devoted to fitness as the present one, who runs regularly and makes extensive use of the gym here. When David Cameron comes downstairs five minutes later to meet me in his wood-panelled study, wearing a navy-blue suit, open-neck white shirt with blue checks, polished black shoes, and with flushed cheeks, he is slightly out of breath. Ordering black coffee I ask for the same he wonders aloud when he and I last met. I was invited to his residence in the rolling Chilterns to discuss this newspaper's Homeless Veterans appeal, which has been an extraordinary success. Together with its sister papers, The Independent, Independent on Sunday, and i, we have raised more than PS700,000 for the brave men and women who serve our country overseas but fall on hard times when they return to civilian life. Or rather, you have raised it, because it is above all thanks to the generosity of you, our readers a point Cameron makes several times himself.

All prime ministers are effusive about the armed forces partly, no doubt, because they hope some of the heroism and splendour will rub off on them, within voters' line of vision. But over the course of an hour, it becomes clear to me that Cameron's respect for our servicemen and women is deep.

"I think we have an enormous duty to those who serve us," he says, after offering warm congratulations on our success. "Obviously many veterans find their place in life afterwards and get on with life. But some tragically do fall through the net and suffer from problems of mental health and other issues, and it's to them that we owe the greatest debt of all."

I had asked him to outline what, specifically, the coalition Government had done to improve the lot of veterans. Cameron appointed Lord Ashcroft, a donor to our campaign, to review the support veterans receive upon their return. The list of changes made is impressive: he mentions redirecting funds from the Libor scandal in the City toward veterans; putting the military covenant into law; and the new military covenant committee in Whitehall, which meets monthly.

"There's a whole list of things," he says, "from the pupil premium [going to veterans' families] to dealing with inquests better, to scholarships for those who lost mums and dads in action, to council house discounts, to better rights to healthcare." This commitment, he says, is partly a result of his 13 visits to Afghanistan, and of the fact that RAF Brize Norton is in his constituency. But won't the coming cuts to expenditure across all government departments, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes as "colossal", jeopardise all this? "No it won't, because we've made sure the Ministry of Defence isn't just the Ministry of Defence, but also the Ministry for Veterans and their families. In terms of the defence budget, we've said that we're going to keep increasing its size."

PERHAPS so; but aren't the stories uncovered by this newspaper, of veterans enduring extreme hardship, shocking? And why should it be up to readers to provide for them? "First of all," he says, "full credit to your campaign because I know it has raised awareness of a very important issue, and I know it has brought forward funding from, for instance, the Mayor of London... The truth is there's always been a role for veterans' charities." Such as, of course, the two that this campaign has supported: Veterans Aid and ABF The Soldiers' Charity. I suggest that the outpouring of respect for our military, not least during commemorations of the Great War last year, with all those poppies at the Tower of London, has been deeply humbling. …

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