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Armed Forces Covenant

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Following a successful campaign by the British Legion—which I am pleased to say was supported by Labour—the House welcomed the announcement last May by the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), that there was to be an armed forces covenant which would be enshrined in law.

The duty to provide for the welfare of our armed forces goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1593 an Act was passed for the Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Mariners, and centuries later the debt owed by the state to our military personnel, who guard our treasured freedom with their very lives, has never diminished. The fact that in recent years our forces have been actively engaged in conflict throughout the globe, which continues to this day in Afghanistan, has given a heightened impetus to working for better terms of service for the armed forces, and making substantial improvements to their welfare and that of their families.

Labour is proud of its record of achievement in defence matters. Under the last Labour Government, the defence budget increased by 10% in real terms. In the course of modernising our armed forces, Labour published, in 2008, the Service Personnel Command Paper and the Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces. The aim was to develop cross-departmental measures to improve welfare provision and support for the forces, as well as evaluating the relationship between the armed forces and society. The resulting recommendations included proposals for a more systematic approach to homecoming parades, the creation of a British armed forces and veterans day, annual public outreach schemes, and civic education in secondary schools.

At the same time, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats both commissioned reports on the state of the military covenant, and many of the subsequent recommendations formed key pledges in their respective manifestos for the 2010 general election. However, the new coalition Government’s progress towards developing an armed forces covenant was overshadowed by the publication in October 2010 of the strategic defence and security review, which produced not just severe cuts in equipment programmes—for instance, the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal and the scrapping of the Harriers—but massive cuts in personnel. At the time 17,000 job losses were announced; the number has subsequently increased to at least 22,000, but remains uncertain. The report of the independent Task Force on the Military Covenant was published in December that year, and its recommendations ultimately led to the announcement of the Government’s intention to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law.

It is now 11 months since the covenant was announced, but although an interim report has been produced, it has not been presented to the House. Can the Minister confirm that the House will receive the promised annual report on the implementation of the covenant, and that it will be presented to the House by November this year?

The shadow Defence Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), recently raised the issue of funding for accommodation with the Minister during Defence questions. That issue is of great concern to forces personnel and their families. Although the Government have put £100 million into the budget for accommodation, they have already frozen funding for service accommodation for three years up to 2013. That means a total saving of £141 million, and will result in a net cut of £47 million. Can the Minister explain those figures, which clearly do not add up?

The announcement of the doubling of the welfare grant and the increase in council tax relief to 100% is good news for our armed forces personnel and their families. However, in order that neither members of the services nor their families are disadvantaged, will the Minister say when the moneys identified by Labour in the Department for Education’s budget, and agreed by the Secretary of State for Education, will be made available so that the education service premium of £250 is not removed from children whose parents, sadly, have been killed in action?

In the 2010 comprehensive spending review, the Government announced that public sector pensions and benefits would be uprated using the consumer prices index measure rather than the retail prices index, and that that would be a permanent change. As a result, a disabled double-amputee aged 28 at corporal level would lose £587,000 by the age of 70, and a senior non-commissioned officer’s widow would lose £750,000 over her lifetime. Have these people not already lost enough? While it may be necessary to use the CPI measure to calculate the upratings in a time of recession, these examples show that there is no justification for denying our forces and their families their rights and is not in keeping with the spirit of the armed forces covenant.

The armed forces covenant obligation involves the whole of society, including voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations and individuals. Will the Minister say how other Government Departments are implementing their obligations under the covenant? Further, will he say which charitable organisations he is working with in order to meet the obligation?

The armed forces covenant states:

“Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.”

While the obligation is a duty for the whole of society, the Government must take the lead. Those to whom we owe such a great debt should not be disadvantaged by the cost of the national debt. Without them, we may not have had the freedom to be able to hold this debate today. Labour will work responsibly and in co-operation with the Government on all aspects of national security and the welfare of our armed forces, but we will also continue to challenge the Government to ensure that the obligations under the armed forces covenant are met.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing this debate on the armed forces covenant. I have discussed the subject rather a lot over the last two years, so I know a certain amount about it.

I am delighted by the hon. Lady’s new-found interest in the covenant, and I am only sorry that she trotted out some old, incorrect and rather party political figures and arguments, because I had hoped that we could move on and discuss the positive achievements of the covenant. May I also correct her on the following point? We did not introduce the covenant into law because of any campaigns by anybody. It was a manifesto commitment, which was reiterated by the Prime Minister shortly after we took office.

I talk to the British Legion the whole time, of course. Indeed, I saw the chief executive on Monday at a conference. We work very closely together, although I am sorry that the Labour party has said that they will be issuing joint press releases, as I think it is important—[Interruption.] Well, I have a document which I can show any Member who might want to look at it. It is important that all charities remain outside the party political arena, and that they are not in any way hijacked by a political party.

Much has been said about the covenant, but I believe that actions speak louder than words, which is why we have placed in law a requirement for the Defence Secretary to report annually to Parliament, clearly setting out what has been achieved and how we are performing. Despite the hon. Lady’s criticisms, I think we are doing rather well, but there is still work to be done. As I have said innumerable times, we are building on the work of the last Government’s Command Paper; I do not think there is any disagreement on that.

The Prime Minister chaired the inaugural ministerial committee meeting on the armed forces covenant, which I believe took place last month, although it could have been at the end of February. I regularly discuss the covenant with the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who is the Minister for government policy and is leading cross-departmental work. Indeed, I spent about an hour with him not more than three hours ago. It is also very encouraging to see how communities throughout the country are producing their own community covenants, including in the hon. Lady’s own constituency. I congratulate them on that, because it is an important step forward.

A key principle of the covenant is to tackle disadvantage incurred as a result of service. That is why, today, in a joint announcement with Royal Mail, we have launched a practical initiative to help those who are serving overseas by giving them the opportunity to apply for credit from UK institutions and to shop online. In the past, service personnel have experienced difficulty if they were living overseas due to the absence of a credit score or reference search based on a traditional UK address. From now on, British forces post office addresses will be recognised. That is the kind of relatively minor Government action, working with others, which makes a real difference to the lives of our service personnel and their families.

I am sorry, but I will not give way.

Disadvantage can take many forms but let us not forget that members of the armed forces are also members of the community they serve, and it is only right that they should play their part in the very necessary changes we have had to make to reduce the deficit. Armed forces pay is frozen, as is that of all public sector workers, with the exception of those earning £21,000 or less, to whom we have given £250 in each of the two years of the pay freeze. I am glad to say that pay has also increased incrementally each year for those who are not at the top of their pay scale, and so serving personnel are getting increases, but not an overall increase in the pay scale. That protection was introduced for the armed forces to ensure they were not disadvantaged by their lack of contractual entitlement. This is in accordance with the principles of the armed forces covenant and has meant that most service personnel will have received an increase to their pay during the pay freeze period. I am sure that all hon. Members wish that the same was true of us, too.

I have said to the House before that I did not enter Parliament to make members of the armed forces redundant, especially when we are asking them to do so much in Afghanistan, as we are now. However, we inherited a massive black hole in the Department’s budget, as has now been accepted by the Labour party. That was unsustainable, and something needed to be done and quickly. The strategic defence and security review of October 2010—the first in 13 years—set the requirement for the future. It included removing out-of-date capabilities and it made room to ensure that we can afford those capabilities needed for the future. The second and final tranche of redundancies for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will conclude in June. The Army will conduct a further tranche and detailed planning is being undertaken. Believe me, this is a painful process that none of us enjoys. As was clearly stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) when he was Defence Secretary, no one currently serving in Afghanistan or on notice to deploy will be made redundant unless they have asked, and are subsequently selected, to be included in the list.

The Government published, in December 2011, the interim report on the armed forces covenant, to which the hon. Lady referred, and I urge the whole House to read it. It was an interim report because the covenant had been in existence for only a few months, and therefore we could not have a whole year’s report. “Transition” is covered in chapter 10, as is “Housing after Service”. The Minister for Housing and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), has recently consulted local authorities on how former service personnel are managed on the local authority housing list. He will announce the findings of that consultation in due course.

On 21 March, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced three new measures to help service personnel. On housing, an extra £100 million has been made available to improve service accommodation. In addition, a much-welcomed doubling in the funding available for families’ welfare while their loved one is away will allow units to fund activities beyond those already announced. It underlines our commitment to those who serve with such selfless devotion to duty, safe in the knowledge that we are looking after their families while they are away.

May I refer the Minister back to the figures that I mentioned in my speech? If the £100 million will not be devalued, does that mean that the three-year freeze will be reduced to a two-year freeze so that that £47 million will not be lost?

We are continuing to refurbish bathrooms and kitchens, for instance, but we are not doing the wholesale modernisation as that has been stopped by the freeze. That £100 million will go towards improvements and the modernisations that will go forward, but there is a freeze. There is a freeze for one simple reason: to quote the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Government, “there is no money”. It is no good saying that we should spend more when we do not have any money.

No, I am afraid that I will not.

Thirdly, council tax relief has been doubled to just under £600 for a typical six-month tour. That ensures that those who are doing so much to maintain our national security benefit the most. Although it is now old hat to say it, I repeat the fact that doubling the operational allowance for an operational tour means that every member of the armed forces who comes back from a six-month tour in Afghanistan comes back with approximately £5,600, tax free, in his or her pocket. That is particularly good business for travel agents and car salesmen, I think, but it is a great gift and they deserve the money that they get. We are very pleased with that and I can assure the hon. Lady that when I have been in Afghanistan—one sometimes gets the odd ear-bending, if I can put it that way—I have heard that people are grateful for that large lump sum, which is deserved, when they come back.

One of the most important aspects of the covenant is the way we treat those who have been injured or suffer from a debilitating health problem as a result of what we have asked them to do. Medical treatment in the battlefield is second to none and what was once an injury that would take a life is now much more survivable. Outstanding care continues at the Queen Elizabeth hospital and at Headley Court, where the determination of our people to get back to as normal a life as possible is impressively displayed. When one meets amputees who are going to climb Kilimanjaro, one is genuinely humbled. I know that that word is much over-used, but it really is very impressive.

Some, sadly, will need a lifetime of care and we are committed to providing it. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has produced two excellent reports and we are taking forward his recommendations, particularly those in his “Fighting Fit” report on the mental well-being of our people. I am pleased to say that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), has recently announced continued funding for the 24-hour helpline that was one of the recommendations. If anybody would like to ring it, as I have, they will discover that the person at the other end of the line knows what he or she is talking about and gives good signposting to those with mental health issues.

We are also working to introduce a veterans’ information service. It will routinely contact service leavers 12 months after they are discharged to establish whether they have any health needs that require attention. The “Fighting Fit” report refers to the service as something of a safety net to help veterans once the support structures available to them during their service lives are no longer readily accessible. To get it right, it is essential that we can easily identify ex-service personnel, so we are working with the Department of Health to ensure that a veteran’s status is properly recorded on his or her records. Equally, however, we must recognise that some who leave the services do not wish to have such a status recorded, and it is right to respect their individual wishes.

The hon. Lady particularly asked whether we will publish a covenant this year and we will do so in the autumn—in November, I would expect—not least because it is a statutory requirement and we believe firmly that we should obey the laws that we have passed.

The armed forces covenant remains work in progress, but it definitely is progressing. We have already made significant gains and we are fulfilling our commitments made in the programme for Government. Much more is set out in the interim report to which the hon. Lady has referred, which I am sure she has read. However it is wrong to suggest that every time we have to make a difficult decision to repair the damage caused by the previous Administration, it is somehow a breach of that commitment. The covenant defines the principles of removing disadvantage and allowing special provision in some circumstances in the access to public and commercial services. This has set a framework for policy making and delivery across Government and will improve the support available for the armed forces community. Those who serve and those who have served deserve nothing less, even in the difficult times we face today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.