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Armed Forces Covenant (Implementation) (United Kingdom)

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an armed forces covenant scheme; to make provision about the requirements and obligations upon public authorities and agencies in relation to serving and former members of the United Kingdom’s armed forces contained within that scheme; to establish a means of providing audit and accountability in relation to the performance of the scheme against its objective; to amend the Equality Act 2010 and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988; and for connected purposes.

Our armed forces are one of the institutions that bind the United Kingdom together. The sacrifices that they have made over generations are a common loss that presents us with an obligation towards those who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Memorials in every art and part of the United Kingdom stand as a sad testimony to their sacrifices. For these reasons, the fulfilment of the military covenant should be a cause that demands our wholehearted support.

The concept of the covenant is not a new one, but the legacy of the terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland, the Iraq wars and the Afghanistan conflict have led to renewed focus on what it means and how it is to be delivered. The term “moral” is rarely used in these post-modernist times, but it is right to describe the covenant as a “moral obligation” to members of the armed forces and their families. That is exactly what it was, is, and forever will be. Therefore, it is an obligation that should be fulfilled in letter and in spirit across the United Kingdom. Sadly, it is not, and that is why I present this Bill today.

At this point, I pay tribute to Mrs Brenda Hale, a DUP Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly who lost her husband in Afghanistan and who has championed this cause on behalf of all servicemen and ex-servicemen and women in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, by the Government’s own admission, the military covenant is not being fulfilled. The Northern Ireland Office has claimed that 93% of it is being fulfilled. That figure has not been independently assessed, and when I outline some of the problems, Members may wonder how the NIO reached it. However, for the moment, let us take its word and ask two simple questions. When in battle, does a member of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy or the Army risk 93% for their country and their comrades? Of course they do not: they risk everything; they risk all. When in battle, does a member of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy or the Army who comes from Northern Ireland or lives in Northern Ireland risk only 93% while those in Great Britain risk 100%? Of course they do not: they risk all, just the same as servicemen based in other parts of the United Kingdom.

So where are we failing in our moral obligation? There are four primary areas in which the covenant is not being fulfilled. The first area is priority of treatment in the national health service for wounded, injured and sick veterans. Subject to the clinical needs of others, wounded, injured and sick veterans in Great Britain are entitled to priority national health service treatment for conditions that are attributable to their service in the armed forces. Priority treatment is not available in the same way for veterans in Northern Ireland, not only because they are often reluctant to declare previous armed forces service on security grounds, but as a result of restrictions contained in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The second area is priority for social housing. Local authorities in Great Britain are required to consider service leavers as having a local connection, and they are given points accordingly. In addition, further priority is often given to veterans on the waiting list for social housing in Great Britain. Again, this is not the case in Northern Ireland because of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.

Thirdly, provision for in vitro fertilisation treatment is not available on the same grounds for veterans who require such treatment because of service-related injuries. There are three entitlement cycles in Scotland and England, but only one is available in Northern Ireland. Each cycle costs about £3,500, although the numbers involved are small.

The fourth area is the waiving of domestic rates or council tax for unoccupied property. In Great Britain, local authorities offer a 50% discount on council tax in respect of empty properties owned by service personnel who live in Ministry of Defence property elsewhere as a result of serving in the armed forces. This valuable concession is not available in Northern Ireland.

In looking at issues as important as health and housing, it is legitimate to question how a failure rate of only 7% is arrived at by the Northern Ireland Office. This failure of delivery is not simply due to a slow or disconnected bureaucracy, but to the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland, especially the section 75 provision which requires that key groups are entitled to protection and is now interpreted as a legal barrier to the implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland.

Lord Ashcroft’s review of the veterans policy, which was commissioned by the Prime Minister, recognised that barrier and proposed that Parliament amend section 75,

“to enable Service Leavers and veterans to receive the recognition and provision they deserve.”

Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Northern Ireland Office has acted on that recommendation so far, despite the fact that section 75 was amended to include Travellers. It is hard to understand why members of the travelling community should be regarded by the Northern Ireland Office as being more worthy of preferential treatment than members of the armed forces. That is why I and my party have chosen, through this Bill, to highlight the inaction.

Lord Ashcroft’s proposals would fit with the approach taken in the United States of America, where the landmark Civil Rights Act 1964 provided specific protection for Government action for veterans. Alternatively, my party’s Westminster manifesto proposed that, rather than exempt action for veterans from section 75, they should be afforded the same protections as section 75 groups. That proposal is not universally accepted in Northern Ireland, and I have no doubt that that is one of the reasons for the NIO’s reluctance to make changes to the 1998 Act.

Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour party have opposed the changes needed to enable the full implementation of the military covenant. Many find their attitude disappointing and disgraceful. Those signing up to join the armed forces are not exclusively from the Protestant and Unionist community. The services recruit from all areas, faiths and political allegiances in Northern Ireland, yet both Sinn Féin and the SDLP seem happy to abandon them.

In conclusion, a moral obligation is not met unless it is wholeheartedly and fully met. In Northern Ireland, it is not being met, and thus the moral obligation is not being fulfilled in the United Kingdom as a whole. Today I have shown the failures and offered this House solutions. This Parliament must now commit itself and act to fulfil the moral obligations to members of the armed forces and their families.

Question put and agreed to.


That Sammy Wilson, Mr David Nuttall, Kate Hoey, Jim Shannon, Gordon Henderson, Mr Gregory Campbell, Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Tom Tugendhat, Mr Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley present the Bill.

Sammy Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 29 January 2016, and to be printed (Bill 106).