The Government are honouring their pledges under the covenant and encouraging wider society to think about its contribution. The Secretary of State has written to the chief executive of every company in the FTSE 350 asking them to consider what they might do better to support our armed forces community, including by signing a corporate covenant.
The demands of service life can impose obstacles for personnel, for example in credit ratings, mortgages and even mobile phone contracts. We are taking forward work to combat commercial disadvantage as a priority.
As I mentioned, the Secretary of State has already written to the chief executives of the 350 largest companies, but the House could do worse than follow the example set by my hon. Friend who is, I know, a champion of the armed forces in his constituency. In light of that, I intend to write to all hon. Members to offer them an information pack and to encourage them to engage with companies in their constituencies, so that we can extend the corporate covenant across the UK.
My constituents at Catterick garrison welcome the 2% commitment, but commercial disadvantage often bedevils them when it comes to areas such as insurance and mortgages. Can my hon. Friend update the House on how he is working with companies to tackle that disadvantage?
The Government have taken a number of steps to level the playing field for those in the military who seek financial products. We have secured a pledge from the UK Cards Association, the British Bankers Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders to notify their members that those who serve in the armed forces should not be disadvantaged because of their occupation, and that applications for credit and mortgages should be treated fairly and consistently.
May I start by expressing my gratitude for the covenant funding that Somerset has received, including for the Tall Trees family centre in Ilchester, which serves the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton and their families? It has been brought to my attention that the criteria for fertility treatment for those serving in the Army can be more restrictive on the issue of existing children than those of some clinical commissioning groups. Will the Minister please look into that as a matter of urgency so that we can continue to ensure, in the spirit of the covenant, that no one is disadvantaged by serving in the forces?
The NHS has committed to providing fair treatment to the armed forces community. I would be concerned if any policies discriminate against our service personnel, but I am not aware that that is the case for the assisted conception policy. That said, if my hon. Friend has evidence to the contrary, I would be delighted to meet him in support of his constituents.
It is over a year since the Labour party called on the Government to undertake an audit of what local authorities are being asked to do and what resources they are being given to meet the expectations laid out in the community covenant—which we are all committed to. When will the Government carry out such an audit, so that we know once and for all what is actually happening on the ground and can start to take steps to rectify problems and meet the spirit of the covenant and the Government’s intentions?
I am delighted to say that all local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have now signed the covenant, and that is excellent news. I am keen that we should have best practice across local authorities, and we have the annual report to Parliament, which has now been published on three occasions. I am more than happy to look at this matter and come back to her.
Last Friday, I attended a military covenant event in Flintshire, organised by the county council, which brought together employers to look at how they could recruit reservists and provide employment to former military personnel. The outputs of that are very successful. Will the Minister give an indication not just of the number of those who have signed the covenant but of the outputs of their involvement with the covenant, through a proper audit?
I am delighted to hear the good news. Word is finally spreading across the land and we are seeing some areas of best practice. I recently awarded Barclays a gold award. Its AFTER programme is a fine example to other companies of the outputs the right hon. Gentleman desires.
The problem with the military covenant is that it is not being properly observed and veterans still remain a disadvantaged group in civilian society. A poll carried out for SSAFA last month makes it clear that seven out of 10 people believe not enough is being done to support ex-armed forces personnel. The same poll found that eight out of 10 people had never heard of the covenant. Many of the veterans who face the biggest problems are under 35 and, although that is not the group people think of when they imagine a veteran, they do struggle greatly. SSAFA says that one in 20 has been forced to take out a payday loan. What in particular are the Government doing to address the problems faced by younger veterans?
I am slightly disappointed by the hon. Lady’s tone. I think this Government have done more than any previous Government to address these matters: it was this Government who enshrined the military covenant in law; it was this Government who, for the past three years, had a report to Parliament; and we have invested nearly £150 million of LIBOR funding. Yes, these things do take time, but we are moving forward in a positive way. The hon. Lady seems to quote rather selectively from the SSAFA report. I would much rather come to this Dispatch Box and work with her to ensure that we can move this forward, rather than simply try to pick it to pieces.