Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No.23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose a duty on the devolved administrations to report annually on the Military Covenant and the effects of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces on service people; and for connected purposes.
My party fully supports the principles of the military covenant, and we welcome the commitments given by the Government in the Armed Forces Bill that strengthen the legal standing of the covenant. We also acknowledge the recent reports prepared by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is in his place, including his recent report on the services available to military amputees. We commend him on his excellent work.
I recently attended an event in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) to recognise the contribution of the Irish Guards, who have recently returned from operational deployment in Afghanistan. Several amputee soldiers who had been seriously wounded during their time in Helmand province were there, and I was reminded of the importance of ensuring that these soldiers are properly cared for and looked after. They are, of course, based in England and have access to the highest standards of care, but one wonders whether the same level of care and treatment would be available to them if they lived in Northern Ireland.
Yet Northern Ireland provides a major contribution to our armed forces. In fact, more than 20% of the reserve forces regularly deployed on operations come from Northern Ireland, despite the fact that we make up 3% of the UK population. That is a remarkable achievement for the reserve forces in the Province. Sadly, some of those who are deployed are killed or sustain life-changing injuries, and it is important that these soldiers receive the care and support that they need, wherever they live in the United Kingdom and wherever they are based.
In respect of this Bill, I wish to acknowledge the excellent contribution made by service charities, including the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, Combat Stress, the Army Benevolent Fund—now known as The Soldiers Charity—and the regimental benevolent funds, whose work should not be forgotten. They very often provide help for soldiers who have been seriously injured on operational deployment. In Northern Ireland we are very proud of the giving by our people to such charities. Northern Ireland donates more per head to the poppy appeal than any other region of the United Kingdom.
We want to ensure that our soldiers receive the care and support that they need when they most need it, regardless of which region of the United Kingdom they are located in. That is why I am introducing the Bill today. We want to ensure that there is uniformity across the United Kingdom in the delivery of the objectives and principles in the military covenant.
For example, we have quite a high number of former service personnel in Northern Ireland suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, because we had more than 30 years of conflict in which the Army was deployed on the longest operation in the history of the British Army, Operation Banner. Yet I talk to many of those veterans and they tell me that they are not receiving the level of support and care that they need. They contrast that with the level of care that is available in other parts of the United Kingdom. Clearly there is a deficit, and we want to see it addressed. How do we go about that?
Another issue for us in Northern Ireland is the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive are the only devolved Administration that do not participate in the covenant reference group. The Scottish Government are represented, the Welsh Assembly Government are represented, but not the Northern Ireland Executive, so again there is a lack of uniformity across the United Kingdom. Although of course we cannot interfere in the day-to-day workings of the devolved Administrations, nevertheless, as it is Parliament that is charged with oversight of the military covenant, Parliament should place a duty on all the devolved Administrations to report annually on what they are doing to fulfil their obligations under the military covenant. That reporting mechanism would enable Parliament to assess the extent to which there is a lack of uniformity across the United Kingdom in the level of care and support provided to both serving and former armed services personnel.
That is the main thrust of the Bill. We want to ensure that over time we achieve that uniformity and hold the devolved Administrations to account in fulfilling their commitments and obligations under the military covenant. It may be the case that upon receiving the annual reports from the devolved Administrations, we would want to debate those reports here in the House and consider the extent to which the devolved Administrations are fulfilling their obligations.
I recognise that in the Armed Forces Bill, as amended in the other place, the Government have made provision for the Secretary of State to prepare an annual report on the military covenant, and that the report should take account of the views of the devolved Administrations, but it does not place an obligation on the devolved Administrations to provide those views, and if the devolved Administration does not endorse its part of the report, that element of the report is not brought to the House. My Bill would take the devolved Administrations’ obligation a step further and give them a duty to provide such a report. It is only right that we should do so, in the interests of the men and women who serve this country. That would strengthen the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill.
As I said, we are immensely proud of the contribution that the men and women of this country make in our armed forces. We know that these are difficult times and that there is pressure on public services, but we fully endorse the principles behind the military covenant that when our armed forces personnel place themselves in danger in the line of duty and sustain serious injuries, or when their families are left bereaved by the loss of a loved one, they receive the support that they undoubtedly deserve, in terms of adequate care and treatment. Therefore we do not believe it is unjust or unfair to place a duty on the devolved Administrations to provide an annual report to the House stating exactly what they are doing to implement the principles and objectives of the military covenant.
My remarks are not intended as a criticism of some of the excellent work already being undertaken by the devolved Administrations. I know that in Northern Ireland we have particular problems with the way in which our government system operates, but even there, very good work has taken forward key elements of the military covenant. We want that to go further. We want to ensure that wherever they live in the United Kingdom, whatever region of the United Kingdom they reside in or are based in, our armed forces personnel have access to the same level of care and support as they would have in other parts of the Kingdom.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present the Bill this afternoon. I trust that the House will give its support to the measure.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr Julian Brazier, Mr Gregory Campbell, Mr Nigel Dodds, Thomas Docherty, John Glen, Mr Dai Havard, Patrick Mercer, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Sandra Osborne, Jim Shannon and David Simpson present the Bill.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 243).