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Armed Forces Covenant

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

The full extent of the Government’s work to support the armed forces covenant was set out in the armed forces covenant annual report, which was laid before the House in December 2012. Since then, new measures have included the introduction of the armed forces independence payment, which is not taxable or means tested, as well as the introduction of the new defence discount service and the recent Budget announcement of further LIBOR fines funding for service charities. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Armed Forces Covenant, on which I sit, was established to ensure that momentum is maintained, and it continues to provide a forum in which Ministers can propose commitments from their respective Departments to assist in honouring the covenant.

Some 2,900 recipients of war widow or disabled military pensions are being hit by increases to council tax as a result of changes in the benefit system. How does that align with the principle of the military covenant?

I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman has asked me questions on related matters before. Local councils have some discretion in the money they can use for assisting particular cases, and I hope they will use it wisely, including when military families are affected. I am encouraged by the fact that more than 250 local authorities across Great Britain have signed community covenants—more than half the local authorities in Great Britain—so I particularly expect them to do their best to make the right decision.

I am interested in the Minister’s response, because the devolution of blame for the policy overlaps with how the Government have behaved over the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendation for a 1.5% increase in pay for the armed forces. The Budget said that it would be paid, but the detail shows that it will start on 1 May not 1 April, and will therefore run for only 11 months, not 12. This means our forces are getting £2.6 million less than was promised, or intended by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Could the Minister explain how that is in line with the principles of the military covenant?

The announcement in the Budget was indeed that it would come in from May, and not in April, so there is no surprise in what the hon. Gentleman announced. It was made plain in the Budget at the time. When Labour Members have raised these types of question in the past, they sometimes found that their criticism was ill-founded. I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He will remember that a few months ago he asked me how reforms to housing benefit would affect service families. He will know, following the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that we changed the system so that where an adult child living at home is serving on operations, the child will be treated as continuing to live at home and is therefore exempt. The point I make to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) is that when these issues have been raised in the past we have listened, and we have funds for local authorities to address the issue as well.

Order. I always enjoy the Minister’s answers and I listen to them very attentively, but today they are somewhat longer than were his speeches to Conservative student conferences, which we both attended together in 1985.

The two local authorities in my area, South Gloucestershire council and Bristol city council, have yet to sign up to the community covenant scheme. What more can the Government do to ensure that local authorities sign up to the covenant as a matter of priority?

The decision to sign a community covenant is a matter for individual local authorities, but we obviously encourage all local authorities across the country to sign up to a community covenant to show their support for the armed forces family—the wider armed forces community. I hope that will apply to the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I make that about 23 seconds.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gosport borough council, which adopted its version of the military covenant at the tail end of last year? Will he update the House on the progress that has been made in the take-up of community covenants?

As I said, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant, and I am pleased to say that they are coming in all the time. I am really encouraged by the number of local authorities at all tiers of local government that have been signing community covenants to demonstrate their support for the armed forces community, and I am very pleased to hear that that spirit is alive and well in Gosport.

The Service Complaints Commissioner and the Defence Select Committee both back the creation of a services ombudsman, as do we. On 31 January, we held a Westminster Hall debate on the military justice system, and I hope the Minister will review the remarks he made in that debate. I am concerned that he may have inadvertently overstated the powers being given to the Service Complaints Commissioner. Could he confirm that it is his intention that the commissioner should have all the powers he outlined in that debate, and does he therefore agree that it is time for an ombudsman?

I have a great deal of time for Dr Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner. I have met her twice since my appointment to this post and my ministerial colleagues and I remain in dialogue with her. We are looking at the whole operation of the service complaints system, not least in light of some of the points raised in that debate. We continue that dialogue with her and we may have more to say about the matter in the future.