I beg to move,
That this House notes the First Report of Session 2013-14 from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, HC 51; further acknowledges the recommendations of Lord Ashcroft in his report on The Veterans Transition Review; and calls on the Government to ensure the full implementation of the Military Covenant throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland.
I am delighted to move the motion in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends relating to the implementation of the armed forces covenant across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist party is proud of the contribution made by men and women from throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, who serve in our armed forces and who have served the United Kingdom in many theatres of conflict across the globe. We will make particular reference to Northern Ireland in this debate.
Operation Banner was the longest-running military operation in the history of the British Army. In the course of that operation, a high price was paid by the members of our armed forces and we pay tribute to them today. They include 502 soldiers from the Regular Army, seven from the Territorial Army, five former regular soldiers, 196 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment—a regiment which I was proud to serve— 40 former members of that regiment, seven members of the Royal Irish Regiment, four from the Royal Air Force and two from the Royal Navy. We salute the memory of all those brave souls. Today, many people in Northern Ireland enjoy life because of the sacrifice of those who were prepared to put themselves in the front line in defending the entire community against terrorism.
I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. He served with distinction in Northern Ireland, and to this day carries the scars of his service and the memories of those who did not return home with him. He rightly says that we supply about 20% of the reserves deployed on operations, and I am delighted to see the reserves Minister, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), in his place, as he is a good friend to Northern Ireland. We are very proud of the contribution those soldiers make to the armed forces of the United Kingdom.
In respect of the implementation of the armed forces covenant, it is therefore important that those who come from Northern Ireland and those who reside in Northern Ireland have the same access to the support, treatment and care they require when they retire from the armed forces as applies across the UK. A significant number of veterans live in Northern Ireland, not only the many who served during Operation Banner, but others who have served in more recent conflicts. With the draw-down from Northern Ireland and the end of Operation Banner some facilities that were available for the care and treatment of the armed forces in Northern Ireland are no longer in place, such as the Duke of Connaught unit at Musgrave Park hospital, a specialist military facility that closed after Operation Banner. That has created a greater reliance on the NHS and the facilities that can be accessed by all the public in Northern Ireland.
Will my right hon. Friend outline the difficulties that ex-servicemen and women in Northern Ireland face because of the problems we have with section 75 and the inability to give priority to service personnel? Such priority can be given in other parts of the UK but cannot be given in Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I will deal with that issue in some detail later. It is worth noting that the armed forces covenant is designed to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged by virtue of their service in accessing the care, treatment and support they require. There is at times a misunderstanding about what the covenant means in terms of equality legislation and so on, and we need to address that.
I have made reference to the troubles, as they are sometimes described, in Northern Ireland. A recent report by the World Health Organisation on post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—identified that Northern Ireland has a higher incidence per head of population of PTSD and trauma-related illnesses than any other conflict-related country in the world, including places such as Israel and Lebanon where there have been sustained conflicts for many years. The study found that almost 40% of Northern Ireland’s population had been involved in some kind of conflict-related traumatic incident. The survey estimated that violence has been a distinctive cause of mental health problems for about 18,000 people in Northern Ireland—given the population size, that is significant. Yet no specialist provision has been made to take account of the fact that because of the conflict Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of people with trauma-related mental illness than arises in other parts of the world. That is particularly the case for the ex-service community; the Police Service of Northern Ireland has a specialist facility, funded by government, that seeks to treat officers and former officers for trauma, but there is not quite the same facility for the many more who served with the armed forces.
In fairness, I must mention the Royal Irish Regiment Aftercare Service, which is a unique provision for Northern Ireland, and which the Democratic Unionist party fought very hard to achieve. When the home service battalions of the Royal Irish were being disbanded, we felt that it was important that an aftercare service was put in place to provide welfare support for those who had served constantly on the ground in Operation Banner over many years. We are talking not about soldiers who did a six-month tour of duty and then left for two or three years and came back, but men and women who were on the ground all the time and constantly on duty. Even when they were off duty, they could not relax because many lost their lives at such times. The level of stress that that must have brought on those individual soldiers and their families is enormous. There is a price for that, and we need to be cognisant of it. Therefore the armed forces covenant is important in Northern Ireland in ensuring that the level of support is consistent with the level of need.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to put on record his appreciation of his party colleague, the former Health Minister Edwin Poots, who did an excellent job in looking after veterans’ health despite section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998? Will he make it absolutely clear that it is really the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to fund any additional post-traumatic stress support for those who have served the country and the Queen nobly, in uniform, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is personally aware through her work of the many people who require such support. She paid tribute to my friend and fellow constituency representative, the former Minister of Health, Mr Edwin Poots. I will refer later to some of the provisions that he put in place.
First, let me refer to the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, whose Chairman I am delighted to see in his place this afternoon. The Committee undertook an inquiry into the implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. It is worth noting that its conclusion stated:
“There are a number of cases where the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland does not receive the same level of benefits in relation to health, housing and education as that community in Great Britain.”
There are deficiencies that need to be addressed.
One other conclusion that we reached flies in the face of the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about section 75. We concluded not that the equality framework had created a barrier to the implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland, but that the problem was the awareness of Departments, so the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland has undertaken to better inform them.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. As I alluded to earlier, the perception often does not match the reality. I take her point, and I come to section 75 now.
I had a number of cases of veterans who required health care support, on which I was in correspondence with the former Minister for Health, Mr Edwin Poots. He pointed out in a letter to me that there were constraints within his Department on providing adequate support for the veterans’ community, although he did establish an armed forces liaison forum, which was linked to the armed forces protocol. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) pointed out, some valuable work has been done by the Department of Health, under DUP ministerial control, to co-ordinate the health and social care response to the needs of service personnel and veterans in Northern Ireland.
On occasion, however, when officials are interpreting that policy and the protocol they are allowing the equality provisions to get in the way of providing the support that is required. The Equality Commission has a job to do in educating our civil service on what the armed forces covenant means as regards ensuring that veterans are not disadvantaged by virtue of their service. We are not looking for special privilege; that is the point. We want to ensure that they are not disadvantaged as there is some evidence to suggest that Departments are acting in a way that disadvantages members of the armed forces.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also take the opportunity to acknowledge the work that my colleague Stephen Farry has been doing on access to third level education for those leaving the armed services? That is also a very important part of people being able to access the employment market after they have left the armed forces and being able to participate fully in society.
I am very happy to acknowledge that work and to commend Dr Farry for the work he has been doing to ensure that those leaving the forces have access to higher level education.
Indeed, I also want to mention the Department for Social Development, which has been undertaking work to ensure that the housing needs of veterans are met. There are still problems, however. I had two soldiers in my office last Friday who are in the transition phase and have encountered real problems in being rehoused under the Northern Ireland housing selection system. More work needs to be done in this regard to ensure that soldiers leaving service are not disadvantaged by having to join a waiting list when the situation might have been different had they been living ordinarily in their community. The two soldiers have been resident in Lisburn, in Thiepval barracks in my constituency, for some time. They have been living in the city, but when they joined the housing selection list they were treated almost as if they were newcomers. We need to look at that and to bring about some clarity.
That brings me to section 75 and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). When what was then the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was making its way through this House, we tabled an amendment the effect of which would have been to add veterans of our armed forces to the list of categories of groups protected by section 75. That is important, because had our amendment been accepted it would have cleared up once and for all this misunderstanding about the status of veterans of the armed forces in the equality legislation. Section 75 covers everything from people of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation, people with disability and so on. We would like the veterans of our armed forces to be specified as a distinct group under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 so that it is absolutely clear to every Department that under that equality legislation they have an obligation—indeed, a statutory duty—to promote equality when carrying out their functions. All that means is that the armed forces and veterans are treated fairly and equally and that they are given a distinct status under the current legislation. We believe that that would bring the clarity required to the current law and end any ambiguity that there might be in the minds of civil servants. We urge the Government once again to consider this minor amendment to section 75, which does not alter in any way the statutory duty placed on Departments and authorities but ensures that veterans and the armed forces are properly treated when it comes to meeting their needs.
I mentioned the Royal Irish Regiment Aftercare Service and the continuity the service provides, and again we urge the Government to ensure that it is properly resourced in the future. The need is not diminishing. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, only becomes apparent several years after a member of the armed forces has left service. To suggest that we cease the aftercare service for the former home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment would be a mistake. We need to continue that service to ensure that the thousands of soldiers who serve continuously in Northern Ireland on operational deployment 365 days of the year are properly looked after, not just now but in the future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many former service personnel come to our constituency offices because of post-traumatic stress? I had one such individual come to my office two weeks ago who is still suffering 23 years after a series of events that affected him while he was not even on duty. That is one of the issues to be dealt with here.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point; he is absolutely right.
Lord Ashcroft was commissioned by the Prime Minister to undertake a review of the transition for veterans leaving the armed forces and entering the community. His report made two specific recommendations in relation to Northern Ireland. First, and significantly, he recommended amending section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to enable service leavers and veterans to receive the recognition and provision they deserve. Again, we call Lord Ashcroft in aid of our argument that we need that legislation to be amended.
Secondly, Lord Ashcroft recommended that the Government should appoint a security-vetted armed forces champion in Northern Ireland to enable service leavers and veterans to claim entitlements without fear for their personal security. That remains an issue for many veterans, because in parts of Northern Ireland there is still a threat and they are still targeted by those elements in our society that do not support the peace process.
I hope that the Government will reflect on those recommendations. It is disappointing that the Cabinet Office response did not refer to either recommendation. I therefore call on Ministers today to reflect on the proposals to amend section 75 and to appoint an armed forces champion in Northern Ireland. Perhaps an armed forces champion could also serve on the reference committee that meets regularly to discuss implementation of the military covenant. Northern Ireland is not represented on that committee, because unfortunately there is one party at the Executive table that will not agree to the appointment of a military covenant representative.
I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s discussion of the potential role of an armed forces champion and wonder whether I can tempt him to suggest that the champion might also look at the potential for a military credit union for servicemen and their families, both in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom. There has been some debate in the House on that prospect, so it would be useful to hear his view on it.
We in Northern Ireland would be very keen to see such a facility made available to armed forces veterans and their families. Credit unions are very widely supported in Northern Ireland, and this would be of real benefit, so the armed forces champion might have a role in helping to take that forward.
I do not wish to sow a seed of dissension, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that, from my perspective, I am a little nervous about how former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and indeed the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve, would feel if section 75 was amended to refer only to the armed forces. I am sure that he understands where my heart lies in that matter.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point entirely. I have not made specific reference to that because it is not within the scope of the debate. However, when we tabled our amendment to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, we sought to include another category that would have involved all the innocent victims and survivors of the conflict in Northern Ireland, which of course would have included the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and so on. I emphasise the use of the word “innocent” in our definition of a victim. I of course take the hon. Lady’s point.
There are some very good facilities in Northern Ireland. I commend the excellent work of the military charities in Northern Ireland, particularly the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Combat Stress, which has done some excellent work helping those with post-traumatic stress order, and the various regimental benevolent funds, which are often overlooked but are quietly undertaking work with former members. They do a very good job and have worked throughout the period of Operation Banner, quietly supporting the armed forces and our veterans. But we sense that there is a need for a more co-ordinated approach in the implementation of the covenant.
That is why we—I, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and others—met the Prime Minister and sought a commitment from the Government to assist us with the establishment of a dedicated centre in Northern Ireland to meet the needs of veterans. This would bring together some of the military charities and the Veterans Agency as a kind of one-stop shop for veterans. There is support for this within the armed forces community in Northern Ireland and among the charities, and we made some progress. We are looking, for example, to Help for Heroes. The people of Northern Ireland are very generous in their support of military charities. Every year without exception Northern Ireland contributes more per capita to the poppy appeal than any other region of the UK, and one can understand why. We support generously other military charities, including Help for Heroes and we have been in discussion with it. It is willing, in principle, to support the establishment of such a veterans centre in Northern Ireland.
We ask the Government to give the proposal a fair wind, and I am happy to meet Ministers at some stage to share with them the concept behind the veterans centre and how it might help to ensure full and proper implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland by helping to educate people about the services already available. We are talking not necessarily about additional services, but about bringing together existing services and signposting veterans towards them.
Finally, I refer to the community covenants. We do not have any in Northern Ireland at present, which I think is a major deficit. Somewhere in the system there seems to be a reluctance to see the implementation of community covenants. In my own constituency, the city of Lisburn, we have the headquarters of the Army in Northern Ireland, the headquarters of 38 Brigade, and we now have 2 Rifles garrisoned there. We would dearly love to have a community covenant that would encourage much more interaction, although some already exists. Lisburn is very welcoming of the Army. It always has been and always will be, but we believe that the community covenants would help to encourage an improved relationship between the armed forces garrisoned in Northern Ireland and local communities.
In comments to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 30 October 2012, the present Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), highlighted the particular challenge of implementing the community covenants in Northern Ireland. In his evidence to the Committee he recognised that some local authorities in Northern Ireland controlled by Sinn Fein and sometimes, unfortunately, aided by the SDLP seem reluctant to examine the potential of the community covenant. There is a sensitivity surrounding the issue, which acts as a deterrent within the system. Even councils such as Lisburn city council, which are more than willing to introduce a community covenant, keep hitting a brick wall. I have encountered this. For some time I have been encouraging the council to introduce a community covenant and the council tells me that when it tries to do so, there is a problem somewhere in the system.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would care to come to Plymouth to see how we put together a brilliantly good community covenant. We are working incredibly hard on that. Maybe he would like to bring people with him as well.
I would be delighted to visit Plymouth to see the community covenant in action. Indeed, we might even bring some of my colleagues from Lisburn to attend.
I ask Ministers, in examining this issue, to bear it in mind that there seems to a be a problem somewhere in the system, with a reluctance to have community covenants in Northern Ireland. I understand that some kind of system is currently in place with 38 Brigade in respect of community covenants. I am happy to write to Ministers on this point to seek some clarity on where we stand.
We now have 11 new councils established in Northern Ireland. They were elected this year and will take on new and extended local government powers from April next year. There is an opportunity for those councils to introduce community covenants, so let us not put any barrier in the way. If there is one, let us examine why it is there and have it removed.
Perhaps my right hon. Friend can assist me on the role that 38 Brigade plays in community covenant grants. I understand that there could be an alternative way of doing this. How satisfied is he that that would provide a full substitute for the way in which the system operates elsewhere, and what are the inadequacies of that approach?
My right hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. Northern Ireland seems to have a slightly different system for the establishment of community covenants than that which applies in other parts of the United Kingdom, which involves a role for 38 Brigade. I have not yet been able to establish why, but there seems to be reticence somewhere in the system about introducing community covenants. Some councils are willing to do this, and we should therefore be encouraging it. I am happy to write to Ministers so that perhaps we can get to the bottom of this.
The Democratic Unionist party supports the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. Some problems still need to be ironed out. We would like section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to be amended to ensure that there is no ambiguity about how the covenant should be implemented by Government Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland. We would like to see the continuation of the Royal Irish Regiment Aftercare Service, and the establishment of a dedicated veterans centre in Northern Ireland. Finally, we would love to see each of the new councils in Northern Ireland introduce a local community covenant to improve relations between our armed forces and the community. I believe that that is what the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want.
It really is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), and I am very grateful for his speech. It might have looked as though those of us sitting on the Front Bench were muttering away, so I hope he did not think that we were doing so in some disrespectful way; in fact, we were listening to and discussing many of the very good points that he raised. I join him, and I am sure everybody else in this place, in paying tribute to all those who have served, especially to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and, of course, their families.
One of the most interesting parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech—I confess freely that I had not thought of it in this way before—was when he talked about mental health, a subject that is dear to my heart. We are making very good progress, in all our armed forces, in how we deal with mental health. Certainly, the statistics show that we do not have a higher incidence overall of mental health problems among people who are leaving our armed services than among those in the greater population. I would like to discuss further all the matters he raised, but particularly his very good points about post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these men saw traumatic incidents when they served, and that affected their families as well. Of course, they did not have the benefit of going back home, because that was their home. He made some very interesting and important points. As I say, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss everything that he advanced in his speech.
I welcome the support of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and its endorsement of the armed forces covenant and the two key principles on which it is based. The first is that the armed forces community should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. We are therefore saying not “an advantage” but “no disadvantage.” I am sure everyone present understands that, but it is important that we get that message out. The second key principle is that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured or the bereaved.
Obviously, we carried out the report in great detail. Since then I have come across a case in my own constituency regarding a young lady whose father was based in Germany. They had a British forces post office address, but, on their return, she was unable to claim jobseeker’s allowance because she was not registered as being habitually resident here. That is a very clear example of how that family is disadvantaged. If that is incorrect I would be glad to take that back to her.
I would, of course, be more than happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and see whether we can sort it out.
The armed forces covenant is a clear statement of how members of the armed forces community should expect to be treated, no matter where they live in the country. That reflects the moral obligation we have to all of those who have given so much for their country.
Over the past four years, the Government have delivered a comprehensive programme of activity to rebuild the covenant around the country. We have delivered improvements in health care—both at home and on operations—and in education, housing and, more broadly, the way we support all members of the armed forces community. For example, additional funding by the Government now ensures that our injured personnel have access to the latest world-leading prosthetic limbs, and that the high standard of care they receive in the armed forces continues after they leave. I am not suggesting that everything is perfect, but we have certainly made considerable progress.
I speak as a disabled ex-serviceman—I am 30% disabled. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report states:
“Priority NHS treatment—in England, Scotland and Wales there was priority NHS treatment for veterans with Service-related injuries subject to the clinical needs of others, but in Northern Ireland there was no such priority.”
I assume we are trying to get it for Northern Ireland.
We are. Members will have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has come to the Chamber specifically to listen to the debate. He has reminded me—I should have known this—that he has already visited Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is not in his place, but I remember him inviting me to Northern Ireland some time ago when I had a different ministerial role. I assume that that invitation still stands—his colleagues will no doubt ask him about that for me. I would be more than happy to come over—in fact, I would love to—and not only see the examples of which we have heard, but help in any way I can so that people in Northern Ireland understand what the covenant is all about.
After the hon. Lady has been to Northern Ireland, I wonder whether I could tempt her to go to Virginia in the United States and visit the home base of the Navy Federal credit union. It is the world’s biggest credit union and the only people who can join it are members of the US military and their families. Would that offer further motivation for the hon. Lady in her helpful conversations with civil servants at the Ministry of Defence about the possibility of a British military credit union?
I think that’s a bit off the motion, if I may say so, but, hey, it doesn’t matter: it’s always worth getting in a good point. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to speak to the noble Lord Kennedy, with whom I had a very good meeting recently, who will tell him that huge progress has been made on credit unions.
To return to the subject of the debate, we have ensured that war pensions and armed forces compensation payments for veterans are disregarded for the purposes of entitlement to benefits, and that the most seriously injured veterans receive a new independence payment so they are not affected by changes to the disability living allowance. Those are just some examples of the steps we have taken to support our armed forces community and ensure the Government are living up to the principles of the armed forces covenant. The 2014 armed forces covenant annual report, which will be laid before Parliament before Christmas, will provide further details on the work we have done and the progress that we have made, as well as on areas in which we need to do more.
In a devolved society, there will always be differences in service provision in different parts of the UK. Only yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending the Army Families Federation annual conference, at which several people made quite serious complaints about standards. For example, some of those from Wales complained about education and health in Wales, over which, unfortunately, I have no control whatever. We are aware that there are disparities in services, but I am afraid that that is often the consequence of devolution.
It is heartening that even with the different political and legal situation in Northern Ireland—as we have heard, such differences can make armed forces issues more challenging than elsewhere in the country—the armed forces covenant now extends to Northern Ireland almost in its entirety, notwithstanding the difficulties of councils not signing up. I must mention one of our concerns. We now know that all councils in Britain have signed up to the covenant, but the most important thing is for them to deliver on it. If I may say so, it is very easy for a council to sign up to it, put out a press release and get all the good publicity, but delivery is what is most important. We certainly take the view that there has been some good delivery in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is talking about councils. With 150,000 or so veterans living in Northern Ireland, which is a considerable number given its size, does she agree that it was unhelpful that no members of the Northern Ireland Executive responded to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s invitation to appear before it?
May I, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, correct the record? Two Ministers from the Executive came before the Committee. If my memory serves me correctly, they were the then Health Minister, Edwin Poots, and his colleague the then Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.
I am more than happy for the record to be corrected. I am delighted that they came along. I had dealings with Edwin Poots, and if I may say so, I always found him very good in his role as Health Minister in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, we are beginning to see good delivery on the covenant. That was demonstrated by the fantastic support at Newtownards, where 25,000 people attended the Northern Ireland regional Armed Forces day event, and a further 10,000 lined the parade route through the town.
Lord Ashcroft’s report has been mentioned. “The Veterans’ Transition Review” highlighted that the majority of former service personnel go on to lead very successful civilian lives, begin new careers and enjoy good health. However, it also acknowledged that the vast amount of support available to former service personnel throughout the UK can always be improved. The Government have now published our response to Lord Ashcroft’s report. As ever, I pay tribute to him for the huge amount of work he did in compiling it. It provides coherent guidance on how to improve the transition process, and it has been hugely helpful.
For those who are not familiar with the detail of the report, I confirm that 20 of Lord Ashcroft’s recommendations are already in place in full or in part, 11 are being developed and another eight are being investigated. Specifically on Northern Ireland, he recommended that armed forces champions should be appointed to allow service leavers and veterans to claim their entitlements without fearing for their personal security. I must say that we have found no evidence that previous service in the armed forces was in any way preventing our ex-service personnel from accessing the services provided by Northern Ireland Departments.
I am delighted to confirm that from April 2015, each of what I believe are called super-councils—the new local authorities—will nominate both a non-elected official and a councillor to be members of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland. That must be an indication that progress is being made. The councillor will also act as the local veterans champion. They will manage local sensitivities, where they arise, and enable political action at the appropriate level to ensure that cases are progressed satisfactorily. That is really good progress. We want all local authorities across the United Kingdom to have a local veterans champion, so Northern Ireland is leading the way. That is another example of the covenant in action.
There are three recommendations in Lord Ashcroft’s report that we are not taking forward. One of those is Northern Ireland-focused. We simply do not agree—although we are always listening—with his view that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 should be amended. Some hon. Members have said that, from time to time, section 75 has held back the extension of the covenant measures to Northern Ireland, but we do not think that is the case. However, as I have said, I am going to go over to Northern Ireland and speak to people.
When we last discussed these matters, we reported that some 93% of the covenant measures—this is how we judge whether the covenant is beginning to work—applied in Northern Ireland and that 7% were yet to be met. We are making progress. In June this year, when he was the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) updated the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and advised it that
“practically all of the outstanding covenant measures now apply, or will soon do so, in Northern Ireland.”
It is particularly pleasing to note that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has endorsed the Government’s view that there is no need for section 75 to be amended. In its report of July 2013, the Committee stated that it was
“reassured that the Northern Ireland equality framework does not create a greater barrier to implementation of the Covenant in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. It is important this is understood by those involved in the delivery of services to the Armed Forces Community.”
I have no doubt that everyone in the Chamber will share our sincere hope that those reassurances will be communicated throughout Northern Ireland. Indeed, much of this debate will be communicated throughout Northern Ireland, so that everybody understands what the covenant is all about, which is ensuring that there is no disadvantage.
Despite some concerns, the covenant is not only alive and well in Northern Ireland, but is going from strength to strength. That is testimony to the widespread commitment to the armed forces covenant across communities. Despite the difficulties of Northern Ireland’s unique history and political situation, we have seen real achievements in its progress.
In addition to the veterans champions, a bid supporting the legacy co-ordinator’s post within the UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service, of which we have heard much, received £50,000 from the £35 million of LIBOR funding that we have made available. That funding meant that the role was extended for two years, offering support and advice to statutory and voluntary organisations and individuals covering a range of issues. The Ministry of Defence fully recognises the medical care needs of veterans, which is why it funds measures such as the aftercare service to work alongside the NHS in delivering high-quality support and care. The aftercare service’s continuing collaboration with 38 (Irish) Brigade and the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association has led to the identification of possible research studies in Northern Ireland on future armed forces covenant activities and the needs and concerns of the veteran community.
The Minister has mentioned the cadets. Does she recognise the immense contribution of the cadets to better community relations across Northern Ireland? In parts of the Province, the take-up for the cadets is very high among communities that in the past would have been perceived as nationalist communities.
I absolutely agree. The cadets bring many bonuses to individuals and, as the hon. Gentleman identifies, across the communities. I commend that marvellous organisation to anyone with a youngster. It is a win-win all round.
To make the most of our whole welfare force we have set up a veterans support forum that brings together MOD representatives, all the service charities, and veterans support organisations, to pool information and resources and ensure that those in need can be sign-posted towards the most effective help. In a way, it is quite similar to the Confederation of Service Charities—Cobseo—in Great Britain, and it is great to bring people together in that way. I am also pleased to note that discussions are ongoing with Help for Heroes, Combat Stress, and the Forces in Mind Trust, which all do a great job, about expanding that work in Northern Ireland, and all are due to be present at the next meeting of the veterans support forum.
In future, as the old Administrations draw down we should mark, with thanks, their support for the armed forces, and as the political landscape of Northern Ireland changes, we must focus on sustaining our momentum. The reforms relating to public administration in Northern Ireland will undoubtedly bring governance challenges for the newly created super-councils in April 2015, and we look forward to building and developing new relationships, and underpinning the unique set of circumstances in the region. We should not be afraid to expand on existing provisions and relationships where it is practical so to do, while also being mindful of personal and community opinions about the armed forces, which have been shaped by generations of bitter conflict. If I may say so, we should always look to the future.
We have made good progress, but it does not stop there and work is being undertaken to investigate how to embed and sustain covenant activity throughout the country, and to ensure that members of the armed forces community can access the information and support the need in their local communities.
I am incredibly proud that this Government enshrined the military covenant in law, and its effectiveness will really be in whether it is just about fine words or actions. May I draw the Minister’s attention to a case in my constituency, which I think has wider relevance? A constituent of mine, Mark Iles, feels that he has been hard done by as a veteran in his pension from the Ministry of Defence. He has written to the MOD and to Ministers steadfastly over a number of years, asking about the details of his case, and also asking about the military covenant and whether he has been fairly treated. No Minister or the MOD will be drawn on that question. How does the military covenant interact with his circumstances, and has he been fairly treated as an individual? Is it Government policy that no serviceman or veteran can ask that question?
Not at all, and as I always say in this place, my door is always open. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss that case. In my experience, my officials and I take all cases very seriously, and the attention and care that is given to cases and to letters is incredibly impressive. That is my experience, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss the case that he has quite rightly raised.
The Government will continue to work with the service charities, and we all join in praising their great work, as well as that of local communities and industry throughout the UK. We must identify measures that will reinforce the armed forces covenant message, and develop a long-term action plan that builds on the current momentum. Most crucially, we must help society to fulfil its moral obligation to our brave servicemen and women, and their families, both now and in the future.
I am pleased to speak in this debate, and I welcome the motion before the House. I acknowledge the diligent work of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on defence matters, including his service on the Defence Committee, as chair of the first world war centenary committee in Northern Ireland, and as the local Member representing Thiepval barracks and the home of the 38 (Irish) Brigade. I recognise his unwavering commitment to our armed forces.
It does not seem too long ago that we last discussed this topic in the Chamber, but I appreciate the frustration that as yet no resolution has been found to the overall and full recognition and implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. Today more than 1,800 military personnel are stationed in Northern Ireland, along with the veterans who live there, including those at 38 (Irish) Brigade at Thiepval barracks, which is the headquarters of the Army in Northern Ireland. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all our servicemen and servicewomen, their families and veterans who have, and continue to make, sacrifices of the highest order in defence of our freedoms and the freedoms of others around the world.
We are a couple of weeks away from our annual remembrance commemorations. The physical representation of our remembrance will soon start to appear on our lapels. I will be wearing mine following the launch of the annual Scottish poppy appeal this evening at Dover House. It is worth saying that whether people wear a poppy is entirely a matter of personal choice, but the wearing of a poppy is not a symbol of anything except remembrance. We should keep that in mind in the next few weeks.
The armed forces covenant is one of the ways we show our gratitude to our forces. It sets out the relationship between the Government, the people and the armed forces community, and the principles by which the service community should expect to be treated. It is the least the country can do to honour those who are prepared to make sacrifices every day on our behalf. I speak to many service personnel and their families, as I know does the Minister, and it is clear to me that they do not want to receive special treatment from anyone. They do not want special advantage because of their service. What they want is a level playing field, so that they do not feel they are a step behind everyone else because they may have spent the previous 10 years partially serving abroad or moving their families around from base to base. Importantly, one of the key principles of the covenant is that no member of the armed forces community should be disadvantaged as a result of their service.
I urge the Government again to get their own house in order. I say that gently, because I recognise the Government’s work on the armed forces covenant. As I understand it, there is no mechanism—I have asked this question before—in government for testing a policy against the principles of the armed forces covenant. As long as that remains the case, we will end up in the situation we had with the bedroom tax. Armed forces families were hit by the bedroom tax and it took months of our raising the matter with the Government before they finally made a statement that, from then on, service families would be exempt. The other issue that has come to light—[Interruption.] I hear the Minister saying that that is ridiculous. It is a fact. If he would like to intervene, he is very welcome to do so.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me the opportunity. I cannot think she can sustain her argument. We have a Cabinet Sub-Committee dealing with this matter at ministerial level and we have the covenant reference committee dealing with it. We are looking at it constantly, in real time, all the while. I cannot possibly see how she can say that policy ideas are not tested against their potential impact on members of the armed forces, current or past.
If the Minister is telling me that there is a mechanism in place—I do not think that there is—by which policies that are developed by the Government, Ministers and officials are tested against the principles of the armed forces covenant, I would be very happy to receive the details. All the points the Minister outlined are very welcome—[Interruption.] If he stops chuntering, I will finish my point. All those things are very important in upholding the principles of the covenant, but if there had been a proper mechanism in place, we would not have had the ridiculous situation of armed forces families being hit by the bedroom tax. That is what happened, and that is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions eventually, after months of our asking him, had to come forward with an amended position. I therefore disagree strongly with the Minister on that.
We have also seen—I raised this with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on Monday—the differential in the amount of money that veterans and civilians diagnosed with mesothelioma will receive. I appreciate that she said on Monday that that is now being looked at, and I hope that we can find a resolution, but if policies are tested as they are developed, we will not have to sweep up afterwards when a policy disadvantages a member of the armed forces community.
There might be times when special consideration is appropriate for those who have served their country, and it is incumbent on the UK Government and devolved Administrations to take that into account, test their policies and make special provisions where necessary or justified. I welcome the reports published by the Scottish and Welsh Governments providing details of how the covenant is being implemented in their respective nations, but it is disappointing that as yet we do not have such a report from the Northern Ireland Executive.
We do not necessarily need uniformity across the four nations in how the covenant is implemented and reported on. Indeed, one of the benefits of devolution is that we can develop local services according to the issues in each area. However, we need to know what is going on, because if the covenant is not being upheld in some way, it is a matter of concern and we should know about it so that we can look at the reasons.
I welcome the work done in Northern Ireland on the covenant and I am grateful to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for highlighting some of that good work. In particular, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) mentioned the Royal Irish Aftercare Service. I know that the Minister has already offered to visit, but if it is welcome, I would be happy to come over and visit that service and anything else Members think would be useful. [Interruption.] We can come separately or together—whichever arrangement is best.
According to the Committee’s report, however, there remain several areas where the armed forces community in Northern Ireland does not receive the same level of benefits—I use that word in the broadest sense—in relation to health, housing and education as it does in the rest of Great Britain. I think we have heard some of those details already today.
As has also been mentioned, Northern Ireland is not a signatory to the community covenant, which is disappointing. I would be grateful to hear more from the right hon. Gentleman about why that is and how the matter could be taken forward. By comparison, 400 local authorities across the rest of the UK have signed up to that agreement.
The veterans transition review carried out by the noble Lord Ashcroft, which we have welcomed, also highlights some of the problems facing the armed forces community in Northern Ireland. It sets out how the history and political landscape have perhaps interrupted the focus on service leavers and veterans and covers the issue we have discussed of equality legislation and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 being a potential barrier to the implementation of the principles of the armed forces covenant.
I acknowledge that those are not issues that can be easily solved, but at its heart the armed forces covenant is about people and fairness, and it is up to us and, in particular, the two Governments, to find a way through it. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has said that there is no conflict between section 75 and the principle of no disadvantage for armed forces personnel and families, so it is concerning to hear that some officials might be using it as an excuse not to respect fully the principles of the covenant. To be clear, section 75 should not be used as an excuse for inaction.
I would also place on the record my appreciation and support for the many service charities, including but not limited to the Royal British Legion, SSAFA and Combat Stress, working in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom. Without their tireless work, our armed forces community would not be as well supported as they are now. However, as always, we should not expect the voluntary sector to step in and do the work of Government. Similarly, we cannot expect local authorities to bear the full brunt of responsibility.
It is worth looking back at the armed forces covenant report from last December—I appreciate that this year’s report is due quite soon—as it contained a quote from the families federations of the three services:
“Central Government has asked local authorities to implement many aspects of the AF Covenant with little additional resources in terms of financial support, staff or guidance.”
I have raised this point previously and I reiterate it: we must ensure that we do not end up with central Government pushing extra responsibilities on to local authorities, which might not have the resources or be equipped to deliver the commitments we make here. That might result in the service community being let down. I urge the Minister to undertake and publish an audit of what local authorities are being asked to deliver for the service community and what resources are being provided to them to do that. At the moment, I remain concerned that there is a gap, as reflected in the comment I cited from the families federations.
The armed forces community has made many sacrifices in defence of our country and continues to do so. We are grateful for its professionalism and dedication. We should recognise, too, the continued support of their families and the wider armed forces community. We know that Northern Ireland has faced particular challenges in taking the covenant forward, but I hope the Northern Ireland Executive will do all they can to ensure that veterans who have settled in Northern Ireland are supported, and that families and serving personnel there are treated in line with the principles of the covenant.
I note the Northern Ireland Committee’s particular recommendations for mental health provision and the appointment of an armed forces advocate. In line with the motion before us today, I urge the Government to ensure the full implementation of the armed forces covenant throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland.
May I say how apt it is to have this debate today? On Monday, with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), I was in Northern Ireland, visiting graves with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It was an enormous privilege to be able to pay tribute not only to them, but to the graves of the Scots, the Welsh and the English who had given their lives during the first world war.
Before I go any further, I want to place my contribution in some context. I am the vice-chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces, with special responsibility for the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy, as well as vice-chairman of the all-party group on veterans. I have been involved, too, with the veterans’ court partnership run by Trevor Philpott down in Devon and with Forward Assist of which I am a patron, as encouraged by my very good friend, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who unfortunately does not sit on this side of the fence, but there we go.
I am the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, which is the home of 3 Commando Brigade, a fine set of Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel. Let me take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who is unfortunately not in his place—for investing £2.6 billion in Devonport dockyard, which will, I hope, safeguard 4,000 jobs for the foreseeable future. It is a very different place from what it was when I was first elected—I do not pretend for a moment that I have been totally responsible for that, but I hope that I have been able to put some pressure on the coalition Government to ensure that Devonport was safeguarded much more than would otherwise have been the case. During my 10 years as the candidate for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I have been for ever asking questions—or, more importantly, answering them—about what would happen to Devonport in the future. I certainly think that it is much safer now than it has been for a very long time.
In the Plymouth area, the jobs of more than 25,000 people depend on the defence industry, and there are a large number of veterans. I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s School Heroes, which looks after some of the young children of servicemen and women. Those children must have had an incredibly difficult time over the past few years, seeing their parents go off and fight in Afghanistan and, of course, in earlier campaigns. It must be incredibly worrying for them when their parents are deployed abroad, and I am delighted that Plymouth has worked so hard to put that right.
Last year, we on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—on which I serve, and I am delighted to have my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury as my Chairman—went to Washington to see for ourselves how the United States has been looking after its veterans. We had to take account of the fact that the United States unfortunately does not have the national health service that we have here, and does not necessarily have the same welfare provision. However, we learned a great deal while we were there.
I fear that Britain is set to face a tidal wave of mental health issues, and we shall have to do something about that. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who, as a defence Minister, did so much work in putting together “Fighting Fit”, which gave us a clear blueprint for dealing with some of those issues.
While we were in the United States, we heard from a man from Little Rock about the setting up of military courts to discipline veterans who have had problems in the justice system. That was one lesson that I learned from the visit.
The hon. Gentleman plays a very distinguished role on the Select Committee. Does he agree that the real difference between us and the United States was the fact that billions of dollars are available to services for veterans? By comparison, the amount that is available for the purpose in any other country, let alone the United Kingdom, pales into insignificance.
I recognise that the United States is a larger country and that it has more money to spend. Nevertheless, it has been doing some very interesting things. They include dealing not only with people who were in Vietnam, but with those who have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our country, of course, there are also the members of the military who had to fight in Northern Ireland.
The rationale behind the military courts is to deal with offenders who have committed misdemeanours, before they can progress to community activity. They try to change offenders’ behaviour, and encourage members of the local community to play a part in looking after veterans. We need to get better at identifying the veterans involved. I have been working in Plymouth with a man called Ian Sheriff in connection with dementia, and I am delighted that those in the naval base have worked so hard on the Prime Minister’s “dementia challenge”. I also pay tribute to the Members with south-west constituencies who have campaigned in that regard.
We must do much more for our veterans. We should give them mobile phones, which is what happens in the United States, so that they can be rung up every six months. We also need to track them. Working on issues such as mental health is the way forward. I also support the extension of the covenant to Northern Ireland. We need to look after our veterans as well as we possibly can.
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). We serve together on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and we have many good times. He has mentioned his visit to Washington; some of us did not have the privilege of going, but we hope those who did had a good time. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who gave a very good opening speech; listening to her and how she put her points forward was a breath of fresh air. I give my congratulations on the initiatives the Government are proposing and implementing.
Our current Government have a duty of care towards each and every member of Her Majesty’s armed forces across the whole of the United Kingdom. Within their remit it is vital that care and support is given to those who continue to live with the scars and pains of bygone conflicts. We in Northern Ireland are, of course, all too aware of the pains of battle and what members of the armed forces faced during the years of struggle against the republican enemy.
The military covenant is a real and genuine opportunity for the Government to show their gratitude to all who fought for the cause across the whole of Europe during wars and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Our nation has a moral obligation to support our military members, and I am proud to say that right across the United Kingdom people are continuing to fulfil that obligation.
Let me remind the House that there are, of course, five Members of Parliament who disregard this covenant and have absolutely no desire to see its full implementation in Northern Ireland, but despite their objection, Sinn Fein Members cannot build the courage to stand before us in this Chamber and explain exactly why they oppose it. Of course we know why they oppose it, but they have not got the courage to come here and tell other Members why. This attitude fails to represent the voices of constituents who support this covenant and it fails to fulfil our overall obligation to support our servicemen and women.
One key area of the covenant that I want to raise in particular, and which has already been touched on, is the important issue of transition. I have no doubt that this House recognises that the transition from service back into civilian life is a process that can often involve mental barriers for both the serviceman or woman and their families. Support for mental health care patients has been a key issue that I have sought to address in my own constituency of Upper Bann, and the number of individuals who have come into my office over the years with mental health difficulties during the transition from military service to civilian life never ceases to amaze me. I represent many people who currently serve in the armed forces or who have retired from the forces. In my constituency visits I hear some horrendous and disturbing stories of those who are struggling with mental illness.
Across Northern Ireland we are facing ever-increasing numbers of mental health cases, with our health care professionals and support organisations struggling to meet the demand. However, an even greater concern is the many patients who think they can deal with their own mental health problems and attempt to provide their own remedy of recovery. As we all know, this can often lead to very dangerous, harrowing and tragic consequences.
Many of our armed forces servicemen and women will finish their service without physical injury or any evidence of long-term damage, but in the months and years ahead the scars and realities of battle can so often return with even greater effect. If fully implemented, the covenant should provide the training, education, health care referrals and appropriate career support for all those going through this transition process. We have heard the figures—that some 94% or 95% of the covenant is being implemented—but there is a stigma for those in Northern Ireland, who are part of the United Kingdom. We heard that 20% of the Crown forces are from Northern Ireland. They have put on the uniform of the Crown forces, and some have made the supreme sacrifice, leaving behind their families. They were willing to do that, and their families are now going through a difficult time, but they are not worthy of the full implementation of the covenant.
There is a stigma there. We are part of the United Kingdom, and we know the difficulties. We know that Sinn Fein is putting obstacles in the way. There needs to be that reassurance for those who have given many years of service to Northern Ireland and to the Crown forces, many of whom have made the supreme sacrifice, and whose families are left to pick up the pieces.
I congratulate the Minister on her speech today, and we look forward to progress being made and the full implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland.
I want to begin by thanking the Secretary of State for Defence for attending the opening part of the debate; that was deeply appreciated. I am also delighted that the shadow Minister is here, and I thank the Minister of State for her speech, the manner in which she delivered it and her willingness to learn more about the workings of the military covenant in Northern Ireland. She and the shadow Minister both made a very generous offer to come to Northern Ireland and see what is happening for themselves. That is deeply appreciated and I want to put that on the record, because often, Ministers and shadow Ministers can be taken for granted. They will both be very welcome in our Northern Ireland constituencies. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has a base in his constituency, as do I, so they are very welcome to visit.
I want to pay tribute to the men and women of our regular armed forces across the United Kingdom, who daily place themselves in the line of fire, not only for this nation but for others across the world who need their protection. I also want to pay tribute to the Reserve forces and their families. As with others who put themselves on the front line, especially in Northern Ireland, many of their families are forgotten about, yet many have also made a tremendous sacrifice and paid a tremendous price for their involvement in the armed forces. In Northern Ireland we are very proud of the contribution our Reserve forces make to all elements of the armed forces in the United Kingdom. We are proud that, despite Northern Ireland’s making up approximately 3% of the UK population, we regularly provide more than 20% of the Reserve forces on operational deployment. That is a great testimony to the long and proud tradition of Northern Ireland’s servicemen and women, and the reason why we must speak up today in Parliament for those from our part of the United Kingdom whom we genuinely believe have been denied the full implementation of the armed forces covenant.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s review, there are a significant number of home service Royal Irish Regiment and Ulster Defence Regiment personnel living in Northern Ireland, and their needs are enduring. The aftercare service, which, along with the armed forces charity SSAFA, operates a number of veterans support committees, was set up to provide welfare assistance to this group. It is in the process of reorganising to accept responsibility for all veterans in Northern Ireland. That discreet charitable welfare support is essential to mitigate the difficulties associated with assessing statutory veteran-related assistance and with the much lower profile of veterans in Northern Ireland. The DUP fought hard to secure that service in the period leading up to the disbandment of the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment. The work of the various armed forces charities and support organisations is to be commended. Their dedication to working with and for our servicemen and women is second to none.
I welcome the news from the Government that £50,000 of funding has been given to the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment Aftercare Service to enable it to set up a welfare support network and an advisory service for veterans and their dependants in Northern Ireland. However, further charitable support is needed, and I repeat the DUP’s call for the Government to co-operate with the military charities to establish and fund a treatment and respite centre in Northern Ireland for veterans and armed forces personnel.
There are limits to what organisations such as those can achieve without greater Government assistance. In England, Scotland and Wales, wounded, injured and sick veterans are entitled—subject to the clinical needs of others—to priority NHS treatment for conditions that can be attributed to their military service. However, that arrangement is still not being implemented in Northern Ireland because of the ongoing security threat from dissident republicans.
Lord Ashcroft’s review proposed a solution in which security-vetted armed forces champions would be appointed to work in the various agencies to assist service personnel and veterans. The Government Departments in Northern Ireland that might be able to offer support to veterans and service personnel say that they are unable to give them any form of professional treatment in line with the objectives of the military covenant because of the restrictions placed on them by legislation.
When the then Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 30 October 2012, during the Committee’s inquiry into support for armed forces veterans in Wales, he was asked whether he was aware of the different emphasis being put on different policy priorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He replied:
“We have a particular challenge in Northern Ireland because some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities have a particular view of the covenant and what it represents. So in Northern Ireland this area is particularly sensitive and difficult”.
If the Government are unwilling to fulfil their duty to implement the military covenant in Northern Ireland owing to a fear of Sinn Fein and nationalist intolerance, it is time that they publicly admitted it.
The challenge for the Government and the Northern Ireland Office is to stand up to those restrictive elements and give military veterans residing in Northern Ireland their full rights. This Government should not be frightened or bullied into backing down by Sinn Fein’s demands, which discriminate against the very servicemen and women who have protected our nation. The motion before us today is about equal citizenship, equal treatment and equal gratitude for our armed forces personnel, be they from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the various regions of the British Commonwealth. They all deserve our support, and they should not be discriminated against just because they happen to reside in Northern Ireland.
I agree with my right hon. Friend; we must also be sensitive to their needs. When we ask for protection and services for those from Northern Ireland or any other region of the United Kingdom, we must not forget the many people from the Irish Republic who put their necks on the line by joining up and going to fight with Her Majesty’s forces for freedom across the world, even though it was unpopular to do so in their own neighbourhoods. The armed forces covenant sets out the relationship between the nation, the Government and the armed forces. It recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and it establishes how they should expect to be treated. The covenant states:
“In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces.
In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.”
Why should one region accept anything less than that which is enjoyed by the rest of the United Kingdom?
The Democratic Unionist party is proud to support our armed forces and will accept nothing less than full implementation of the covenant. At Westminster, at Stormont and in local government, the DUP has sought to give a voice to those who have served our country. The greatest service that can be given in terms of recognition is to remove the barriers to the implementation of the military covenant for ex-servicemen and women. Within the current legal limits, DUP Ministers have done their utmost to help ex-military personnel, and that has been acknowledged in this House today. The work that my colleague in another place, Edwin Poots, a former Minister, put in has been acknowledged, as has that of other of my colleagues. Our party has met officials from the Northern Ireland Office on numerous occasions about the issue and we will continue to seek all avenues available for supporting the armed forces. Today’s motion is part of a wider debate on defending Her Majesty’s armed services. The Government must ensure that our defence budget is protected as much as possible. The very least we should be doing is ensuring that our soldiers are fully equipped for battle, and that those who return from military service are supported and given the opportunities in life that they deserve.
I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for the update to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee dated 16 June, which stated that 93% of the covenant measures had been extended to Northern Ireland and that further work is being done to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. That work must be continued, as the issue has not yet been settled once and for all. I firmly believe that Her Majesty’s Government have a duty to support the armed forces and the veterans who have served their country so well, and my party is happy to work with Ministers in pursuing that vital work. No political obstacle or political party should get in the way of full implementation of the covenant in every region of the UK, including Northern Ireland. Soldiers who reside in Northern Ireland serve the whole of the UK. The military covenant is not a devolved matter, so whether they receive their entitlements should not be a postcode lottery. There should be equal support for all military personnel, wherever they live within this United Kingdom.
I am sorry that we do not have any nationalist Members or Social Democratic and Labour party Members taking part in this debate but I remind everyone in this House that whenever our soldiers defended us on the streets of Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] I said taking part in the debate; I did not say that they were not present. Whenever our soldiers went out on to the streets of Northern Ireland to protect us in those years of trouble, they did so for everyone. Everyone was equally protected, and many of our soldiers gave their lives and sacrificed their all to ensure the safety of the ordinary, decent people of Northern Ireland, wherever they came from, in very difficult circumstances. As I said, many of them made the supreme sacrifice and paid the supreme price for their labours.
We in Northern Ireland know all too well the role our armed forces play. During Operation Banner, the longest continuous military deployment in British history, more than 1,000 British security force personnel were murdered defending our Province from terrorist attack. Tonight, in this debate on the military covenant, we honour the memory of all those who have served their country. We demand that the rights of those military veterans from Northern Ireland are upheld, as they have fought in the same conflicts, suffered the same hardships and encountered the same cost in terms of loss of colleagues, family and friends. Therefore, they are due not only the respect that this House, this Government, Northern Ireland and the people of the United Kingdom have promised, but full implementation of the armed forces covenant.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate. My party is pleased to have secured this debate on the military covenant because the issue resonates with a great many people across the whole of Northern Ireland. It resonates not only with those of a Unionist disposition, but with those who are perceived to be of a nationalist disposition. I fully support the motion—indeed it would be difficult not to—but it saddens me not only that it took so long for these men and women to be granted certain privileges and better treatment after returning home from duty, but that still in 2014 those servicemen and women on the British mainland are protected from being disadvantaged in certain areas of life, yet those privileges are not fully extended to servicemen and women in Northern Ireland.
May I also say what a pleasure it was to see the Secretary of State in the Chamber? We very much appreciate his presence.
I think it is important to put that on the record. Although this has been a short debate, it has been of high quality. The fact that the Secretary of State for Defence and his ministerial colleagues, and the shadow Secretary of State and his shadow Ministers, were here for such a lengthy period is a strong indication of how seriously these matters are taken by the House of Commons and both main parties, and that is deeply appreciated by everyone in Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution, even though he took the next couple of lines off me. None the less, we are greatly indebted to the Front Bench and shadow Front Bench teams for their contributions.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made recommendations on the covenant. What bothers me deeply is, as Lord Ashcroft noted, how we can ask and expect our brave men and women to go off to wars, prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice, and not extend them any care of duty on returning home.
The inquiry that was carried out in 2012 and published in 2013 found that, owing to devolution, variations exist across the regions of the United Kingdom in how health, housing and educations services are provided. All Members have mentioned exactly what those shortcomings are. I also welcome the fact that—this was mentioned by the Minister of State—93% of the recommendations from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee have been delivered.
One key point that we noticed in the Select Committee investigation was that there are regional variations because of devolution, and we need to look at them separately from those that result from the implementation or otherwise of the covenant. In some cases, military personnel are better off because of the devolution settlement than is the case for people in other regions of the UK.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that every Member who has spoken has mentioned the effects of mental ill health. The magnitude of these issues is clear to us all. If we were not already aware of it, we should be now, especially those of us in this Chamber today.
There are some specific benefits for the armed forces in Great Britain that are not available in Northern Ireland, such as improved access to IVF treatment, which is available in the mainland, but not yet in Northern Ireland, although I would like to see that happen; priority in accessing NHS health care, and in this regard I acknowledge the commendable hard work and commitment of the former Health Minister, Edwin Poots, and the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland; priority in accessing social housing; and certain educational entitlements. Those variations are unsurprising, but devolution differences should not mean that Northern Ireland’s servicemen and women are treated any differently from their British counterparts. Of course, Northern Ireland is different and we recognise that, as did the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Lord Ashcroft.
As paragraph 12 of the Committee’s inquiry into this subject stated:
“We accept that the different political and legal situation in Northern Ireland, compared to Great Britain, makes issues relating to the Armed Forces delicate and potentially contentious.”
I like to think that as the peace process has moved forward there has been greater acceptance among some of the community. If we went into west Belfast and asked some of the people there about their history, we might be surprised by those who are committed to this issue and interested. I went to an event this morning on the first world war, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). The 6th Connaught Rangers, Belfast’s nationalists in the great war, might have had a different political aspiration but served in the British Army.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point and that was exactly the case in Northern Ireland: they protected everyone, as we all know.
Of course, paragraph 12 of the inquiry mentioned that Northern Ireland was different politically and legally, making issues relating to the armed forces contentious, but it went on to say that the armed forces community in Northern Ireland should not be disadvantaged
“compared with other groups there, or when compared to that community elsewhere in the UK, beyond that variation which would be expected under normal devolution.”
Although I understand that we are delivering 93% of the Select Committee’s recommendations, my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) made the pertinent comment that we want to see 100% of those recommendations implemented in Northern Ireland. We have only 7% to go.
Lord Ashcroft also recently considered alternative options as part of his review of how former military personnel assimilate back into civilian life. He recommended that part of the Northern Ireland Act, which was introduced after the Good Friday agreement, should be changed at Westminster to allow the covenant to operate in Northern Ireland. A number of Members have spoken about section 75, which makes it an offence to discriminate against anyone based on factors such as religion, race, age or disability.
Ironically, the section has been used to discriminate against some former servicemen, who cannot apply for social housing when they are in the military for security reasons. A number of constituents have come to me who have had difficulties letting the housing people know all their circumstances because of their security service. They could gain some advantage from being in the services, but cannot because of the security implications. There are issues that need to be addressed when they leave the armed forces. Lord Ashcroft suggests that the section should be altered to allow ex-servicemen to receive the
“recognition and provision they deserve”.
It is not as if we are asking for mountains to be moved; we are not. Giving veterans priority access to NHS treatments if they have been injured in the line of duty seems just and fair, and it also seems just and fair that these men and women, and their families, should be given all the help possible to secure a house and a base from which to continue their life. These people were willing to lay down their lives so that we could have our today; we say that every Remembrance Sunday, and the words are pertinent to everyone who attends Remembrance Sunday services. They mean so much, and those people have done that so that we can have our todays, and continue to have them. They should not be punished or made to feel as though they have done something wrong in their duties. Quite the opposite: our communities should do everything they can to show these men and women how grateful we are, and our Executive should do all they can to ensure that veterans and their families receive the best possible care when they return home.
When Corporal Channing Day, a constituent of mine from Comber, died after being shot in Afghanistan, we asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister. It was attended by my right hon. Friends the Members for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and for Lagan Valley, my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim, Brenda Hale, who is a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and me. We had a very good meeting with the Prime Minister. Although it was held as a result of tragedy, we initiated that day a call to ensure that all service personnel have an opportunity to participate and have the advantages that they clearly should have from the covenant.
I will summarise some of the contributions. We heard first from my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, whose deep interest in defence matters we all acknowledge. We also recognise that he is greatly respected in this House and further afield, and not only for his knowledge of defence matters, but for his contribution in telling other parts of the world how our peace process has progressed. We cannot be the panacea that will change everything in the world—far from it—but perhaps we can offer some help, and clearly he does that.
My right hon. Friend referred to the sacrifice made by service personnel in Northern Ireland so that we can enjoy life. He referred to the almost 1,000 people who gave their lives in service between ’69 and 2002, and to those who died afterwards as a result of their service. He referred to the covenant being designed to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged, which we all adhere to.
My right hon. Friend also referred to post-traumatic stress disorder, which became a theme in all our contributions. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of PTSD anywhere in the United Kingdom, and indeed anywhere in the world. That shows the magnitude of the issues we face in Northern Ireland. He also referred to the Royal Irish Aftercare Service, which we are all aware of—those Members who were not aware are now. It is second to none. We thank the Royal Irish for all they do.
When it comes to health and housing, a distinct group is specified under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. My right hon. Friend talked about the issues Lord Ashcroft referred to in his report. He recommended that the armed forces in Northern Ireland had a champion. The Minister also referred to that recommendation. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) intervened a couple of times and referred to the importance of credit unions.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to the contribution made by those who police the Province, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley when he responded to that intervention. He also referred to community covenants and the need for the armed forces to be directly involved with local community groups, for example where they are garrisoned, and some Members have garrisons in their constituencies.
I was particularly impressed by the clear commitment the Minister gave—it is on the record in Hansard—on mental health issues in the armed forces and the fact that communities should be involved so that no soldiers or service personnel ever face any disadvantage. The Government are clearly committed to helping the armed forces.
The Minister referred to the 11 councils coming together to nominate one representative to go to the reserve forces association. In a past life I was a representative from Ards borough council, but not every council sends somebody. We hope that the 11 councils will send someone and that they will become, as the Minister said, a champion for veterans. If we get that, I think that we will achieve a marvellous amount of movement for the future.
We heard that 93% of the recommendations will be implemented in Northern Ireland. Again, that commitment shows the impact of what has been initiated in this House by many Members, and it indicates its acceptance across Northern Ireland. The Minister also referred to the Royal Irish Aftercare Service and the cadets, which I was pleased about, because I have a particular interest in the cadet force. We need to show what they have done across Northern Ireland in bringing communities together.
It is always a pleasure when we are all in agreement and saying the same thing, and it was good to hear the commitment from the shadow Minister about a high level of reserves in the TA. In Northern Ireland we have a higher level of service personnel per head of population than in any other part of the United Kingdom. I am not sure if that is due to our warring attitude, or what it is, but we do like to serve in the uniforms of British Army, Royal Air Force and Navy personnel. That runs deep in all our blood in Northern Ireland. She said that the armed forces want a level playing field, and that is exactly what we are trying to achieve. At its heart, the armed forces covenant is about people, and we ought to make sure that their treatment is the same in all parts of the United Kingdom.
As always, the Royal Navy rode high in the speech by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), and we appreciate that very much. I think there must be no place in the world like Plymouth when it comes to the Royal Navy. I always listen to his speeches with some joy. He referred to the work he has done in Plymouth, and particularly to the work that is done with children. That was quite interesting. Other Members might not have mentioned it, but I am aware of the work that armed forces personnel and charities do with children across all communities, and that is good news.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments. Does he think that universities also have a significant part to play? Plymouth university is developing tri-service veterans’ accommodation, and the medical school can participate in that by buddying up with some of these veterans to help them through their mental health issues or whatever they need help with.
The hon. Gentleman invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley to attend his constituency, and he is going to take advantage of that invitation, so he will no doubt come back and tell us all about what the hon. Gentleman is doing in Plymouth, and we can use that as an example in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned mental health issues. He referred to mobile phones for veterans—something that this Government have provided and in which they been supported by the official Opposition.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who began his comments by referring to the duty of care. If we wanted three words that summed up the whole debate, they are probably “duty of care”. We owe a duty of care to our service personnel—those who live with the scars and the pain of conflict. He noted that Sinn Fein is opposing the covenant, yet it does not sit on the green Benches in this House and make a contribution. He spoke of a voice for those who need their MPs to fight for them, and a voice for the families as well. He also spoke about mental health issues in recognition of those who have given so much.
As always, my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim spoke with the passion that we all love to hear. He mentioned that the Secretary of State for Defence was here and thanked him for that. He spoke of the families of those who have made a great sacrifice, and the pride in our armed forces and the tradition of service that we have in Northern Ireland. He made some good remarks about the armed forces charities. He referred to the Royal Irish Aftercare Service and the £50,000 contribution that has been made to help it to do even more for service personnel and their families.
My hon. Friend referred to the need for a respite centre for Northern Ireland, and I give that a plug as well. I do so from a personal point of view, because I would like to see it in Strangford, but it does not matter where in Northern Ireland it goes, as long as we get it. I would be more than happy if he got it in his constituency, or my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley in his, as long as we get it; that is what we are after.
My hon. Friend said that he wants to see professional treatment for all those involved. He made a comment about equal citizenship and equal gratitude, and that is how it should be. We should have equal citizenship for everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and equal gratitude for all those who serve in the forces. He also mentioned—sometimes this is forgotten, and I am glad it was brought up in an intervention—those from the Republic of Ireland who have served with the British forces, of whom there have been a great many.
Various charitable organisations in Northern Ireland deal specifically with the needs of veterans. For example, last year Beyond the Battlefield was set up in Newtownards to deal with the needs of veterans and their families. It aims to help those in financial, mental, physical and other difficulties. I very much support this fantastic organisation. Many of the services it offers should already be available to those military personnel, but because they have a Northern Ireland postcode they are not, despite the fact that they are UK taxpayers and have made the same sacrifices as their English, Scots and Welsh counterparts.
This is all about getting fair treatment. It is not necessarily about special treatment, but it is about fair treatment for special people—those who sustain an injury while serving. Ordinary citizens are not entitled to it. As I have said, however, veterans in Northern Ireland are currently prevented from getting fair treatment. We must ensure that we speak up for our armed forces. Our party and the Government should not be afraid to represent them and stand up for their rights.
The Minister mentioned Armed Forces day in Northern Ireland and the 10,000 people who lined the streets to cheer it on. That happened in my constituency and I look forward to inviting the Minister, the shadow Minister and, indeed, everybody else to join in next time. It is a super day that enables us to recognise the good work the armed forces do.
Every year I am privileged to hold a coffee morning for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—those of us who are of a certain vintage all know them. Last year was a fantastic success: some £4,200 was raised in Newtownards. We were privileged to have a local piper and ex-military man there. He served in the military for more than 20 years and it was all he knew. He came home and, newly married, struggled to find a job to support himself. He is an example of someone who tried hard to get a job and it is important that we as a community act on behalf of those people who have given 25 years of service. Pressure must be put on the Government to ensure that the remaining 7% of the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee are delivered, to ensure that we are an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. May I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on securing it? It is particularly timely, if I may say so, just as we start to think about the season of remembrance.
I am always delighted to talk about the military covenant, because it gives me a chance to plug my book on the subject. If hon. Members would like a copy, I would be more than happy to give them one, provided that they provide me with a donation to the Royal British Legion.
As we enter the season of remembrance, our minds are firmly drawn towards the duty we owe to all of the servicemen and women who serve the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and, in the context of this debate, of course, to those many thousands of people from Northern Ireland who serve in that capacity.
I am particularly minded that we are in the centenary year of the start of the great war. This morning a number of us attended a breakfast reception on the subject and were impressed with the wide range of projects that have been put together by people from across the UK to commemorate the momentous years between 1914 and 1918. No part of the United Kingdom contributed more fully than Northern Ireland. Of course, that tradition has continued in the 100 years since. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to that, and rightly so.
It is important to hammer home one point, and that is that the military covenant establishes the concept of “no disadvantage.” We could have taken the view that we should have the so-called citizen-plus model of the military covenant—that is, the system that applies in the United States, which is often held up as an exemplar for such things. Of course, however, the whole situation in the US is different from our own. The United States, for example, does not have a national health service. It is very difficult—it is invidious—to compare one system a with another.
The model we have adopted is pretty well universal in all countries with which we can reasonably be compared. It is the European model and the one applied by most of our allies. It holds that people who serve our country in uniform will not be disadvantaged by their service. They will not be advantaged. As an ex-serviceman, I agree that servicemen and ex-servicemen do not look for anything extra—they do not expect it and, frankly, they do not want it—but they do not want to find themselves at a disadvantage.
Throughout history, servicemen and women have not always been in the position in which they find themselves today. They used to be distinctly disadvantaged by comparison with the civilian population. We have moved on, and in the 15 years since the military covenant was first written down—it has probably existed in one form or another for centuries—we have made a lot of progress in thinking about what it means. I will come on to what it means in practice with specific reference to Northern Ireland because that is important.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) cited the 93% figure mentioned in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report. The report is now more than a year old, and we have come on some way since then, so 93% is probably a conservative figure, if I may put it that way, and we must now be pretty close to parity in practical terms. We will always have instances where we want improvement, and I am always happy to hear from people about such instances. I am sure that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), is happy to hear from colleagues about instances of our falling short. We are pretty close in practice, although I understand some of the concerns expressed about the purity of the institution—the military covenant—with respect to Northern Ireland.
The aftercare service is something of a trailblazer. I referred to it in the two reports on health care in the armed forces and among veterans that I wrote for the Prime Minister. I looked at the service because it seemed to me that we could learn lessons from it to roll out more widely across the United Kingdom. It certainly is an example of best practice. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who is no longer in her place, referred to it obliquely when she said that it is not simply the case that servicemen in Northern Ireland get a raw deal and that we should ensure—because 93% is not 100%—that we close the gap. Compared with servicemen and women elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the provision is sometimes superior and the package is sometimes better. We should celebrate that, at the same time as we focus, rightly, on areas where we can do rather better.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley rightly talked about the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report on the covenant and quoted it in connection with the shortfall, but it is important to quote from it even-handedly. He has read the report, as I have, so he will be well aware that the conclusion in paragraph 98 states that
“taken as a whole, the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland is not disadvantaged.”
That is fairly straightforward and unequivocal. Given that that is “taken as a whole”, we will of course be able to find instances where the armed forces community in Northern Ireland is not doing as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom, but it gives some reassurance. The report is from last summer, and much work has since been done to close the gap, which I am very pleased to see. We should therefore take some heart from that: the glass is of course half full, as well as half empty.
There has been talk about special handling for the armed forces under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Some right hon. and hon. Members discussed that during the debate, but they know full well the implicit difficulties of doing so. The deal has to do with power sharing, and the section is a cornerstone of the Belfast agreement. In practical terms, I humbly suggest that if people are trying to get improvements for the service community, trying to amend that cornerstone of the Belfast agreement might be a fairly clumsy way of achieving that. We have done so by other means, as was pointed out in the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the work that has been done subsequently.
I understand the point that the Minister is making. Nevertheless, what we are proposing seeks not to diminish section 75 in any way, but to enhance it. I simply make the point—this is not, of course, on the table from this Government—that if Governments can make special provision for terrorists who are on the run, they can make special provision outside the agreement or to enhance the agreement for our armed forces.
The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I commend his rhetorical point, while stating that my concern is a practical one. I want to make things right for the men and women of our armed forces and our veterans. In defence of section 75, it ensures that there is no discrimination against members of the armed forces. I think that the Equality Commission would point that out. Having reflected on his remarks and those of his colleagues, I would much prefer to address this matter in the practical, workmanlike way that has been used for some time, which has shown a fair measure of success. However, I accept his points; they are well made and I understand precisely where he is coming from.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley made reference to the involvement of the Northern Ireland Executive on the covenant reference group. The offer has been made and the door is open on that. I thoroughly recommend that the Northern Ireland Executive take a full and active part in that group. It does work. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), it is an important part of our efforts to ensure that, wherever possible, we deal with issues as they arise in a way that does not disadvantage the men and women of our armed forces. If the Northern Ireland Executive are not represented on the group, it is difficult to see how the Northern Irish perspective will be reflected at that stage in proceedings.
On the lack of community covenants, the community covenants scheme has been extremely successful, by popular consent. I think that most Members of the House agree on that. I am concerned that Northern Ireland is not sharing in that story. There are issues with accessing the grant funding associated with community covenants. I think that I understand some of the issues behind that. However, 38 Brigade has been designing a scheme through which that funding can be accessed. I look forward to the process being a little easier to use and to Northern Ireland being a full subscriber to that successful scheme, which is very much appreciated by the principal recipients.
The issue of armed forces champions was covered well by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. With the new super-councils, there is an opportunity for elected members and officials to take part through the reserve forces and cadets associations. In particular, there is an opportunity for councillors to be champions in their localities. I look forward to that being rolled out.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made a thoughtful speech on behalf of the Opposition, notwithstanding the pop at the spare room subsidy. She said, in terms, that she is not in favour of amending section 75. I suspect—I hope that I am not putting words in her mouth—that she would prefer to pursue that matter through the practical measures that I have outlined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) spoke very well. I know that he is particularly concerned about mental health issues. I very much appreciated his remarks, which were, as ever, well informed and authoritative. His remarks reminded me of some figures on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder that were cited by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley.
It is important to say that the vast majority of veterans are fit and well, and they leave the armed forces fit and well. We do no service to anybody if we suggest otherwise, because young men and women—and particularly their parents—who are considering whether the armed forces is a good career will be influenced by that. In truth, the vast majority of people leaving the armed forces, as we all do eventually, do so in good health mentally and physically.
Under Sir Simon Wessely, the King’s Centre for Military Health Research has produced interesting figures on the incidence of mental health problems among regulars and reservists. Those figures bear close attention and I commend them to all right hon. and hon. Members. In particular, I am interested in his longitudinal study of armed forces personnel. I do not think there will be a tidal wave of mental health problems among people who have served in the armed forces, but more people certainly appear to be coming forward. In a sense, that is to be expected, given the attention that has been paid to mental health issues in recent years, both in general and particularly in relation to service in the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) articulated his strong support for the armed forces, which we all share. He rightly spoke about transition, and commended Lord Ashcroft’s report. If there are any specific points where he thinks that veterans in Northern Ireland are being disadvantaged, I would be happy to meet him to discuss them.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) spoke about the aftercare service—an issue that a number of people have mentioned today. He spoke about equality, and for practical purposes I must say that we have erased what disadvantage we can very well. There is probably more we can do, and we must be constantly on the look-out for areas in which various parts of the United Kingdom are disadvantaged in respect of the care that we give to the men and women of our armed forces. The reality of devolution in this country—perhaps increasingly so as we go further into the process across the UK—is that services will be different depending on where people are. The military covenant will seek to erase disadvantage for having served in the armed forces, and it is right to say that that covenant is not devolved. However, the provision of services that underpin the military covenant often is devolved, and we must accept that some of that will look a little messy. It will not be perfect in all respects or homogenous across the UK, but we must strive towards that given the premise that the military covenant is there to remove disadvantage wherever we can.
We have had a good debate. It has been of high quality and I would expect nothing less given the sponsor of the debate and the Members who have contributed to it. It has been authoritative, informative and passionate, and we owe a huge amount to the men and women of our armed forces. The military covenant is a fearsome contract—indeed, it is not a contract at all, because no lawyer would ever allow someone to sign such a document. The men and women of our armed forces put themselves on the line, and the deal is that when they get into trouble the state will do what it can to make things right. That does not always happen and it is not always possible, but the state must strive to do that.
Some say that the covenant should be extended more widely, and some talk about a public sector covenant, although that rather misses the point. What the men and women of our armed forces do is, and always will be, unique. There is no other group in society—although many come close in places—that do what the members of our armed forces do, potentially exposing themselves to such risks. That is why we have a military covenant. It is something that I think the British public fully understand, and a concept that should be endorsed fully across the United Kingdom. I believe that practically we have achieved such a thing throughout the United Kingdom, and I am very proud of that.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House notes the First Report of Session 2013-14 from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, HC 51; further acknowledges the recommendations of Lord Ashcroft in his report on The Veterans Transition Review; and calls on the Government to ensure the full implementation of the Military Covenant throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland.