Thursday 7 January 2016
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report 2015.
I thank you, Mr Hanson, and the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to hold this debate today. The armed forces military covenant report published in December by the Ministry of Defence is the fourth such document, and together the reports tell a story of growing efforts to meet the military covenant. I was surprised to discover that although four annual reports have now been presented to Parliament, none of them has been the subject of a parliamentary debate. This is therefore a wonderful opportunity for parliamentarians to reflect on the progress being made by Departments, devolved Administrations, local service providers and organisations in the commercial as well as the voluntary sector to meet the covenant’s pledge.
The term “military covenant” was coined in 2000 in an MOD booklet called “Soldiering—The Military Covenant”. It aimed to highlight the mutual obligations between our nation and its armed forces following years of decline in that relationship. Although the term “covenant” seems to imply some form of legal guarantee or contract, it is not enshrined in law. For more than 400 years, though, the state has recognised having some obligation towards its armed forces, with Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, providing by statute in 1593 a weekly parish tax to support disabled Army veterans returning to their homes. With British troops engaged in so many difficult military campaigns and new types of warfare over the last 20 years, our armed forces leaders, with a particularly strong voice from General Lord Dannatt, called on the nation to re-engage with its obligation to our soldiers, sailors and airmen. They all have to swear an oath of loyalty to their Queen and country when they join up, and the military covenant is or should be the nation’s reply to them for their commitment and sacrifice.
A series of legal judgments in the early 2000s led my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, while still in opposition, to set up the military covenant commission. Led by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), its report led to the coalition Government in 2011 deciding that the military covenant should be covered and monitored through provision of an annual report to Parliament. That decision was enshrined in the Armed Forces Act 2011.
I am not from a military family—well, not in recent times. My French great-great-uncle was killed in the opening weeks of world war one by German fire as he acted as a lookout for the French army on the Alsace-Lorraine front.
The hon. Lady mentions the first world war. Does she agree that given that 2016 is the centenary of the battle of the Somme, equality for Northern Ireland service personnel would be very fitting and is long overdue? It would be recognition that every person who serves in the British Army, within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, deserves the same opportunities under the covenant; we should have that in Northern Ireland as well.
I thank my colleague for his intervention. I agree wholeheartedly and hope very much that in the months and years ahead we will be able to achieve that across the UK, including in Northern Ireland.
In world war one, my relation was acting as a lookout for the French army and he was sent up a church tower because he had great eyesight, but he was immediately spotted by German troops because he was wearing a very bright, shiny uniform—you have to wonder. That story has always stuck in my mind; I was first told it when I was four years old. The reality is that if all efforts at diplomacy have failed and war breaks out, we ask our young men, and now our young women too, to go into harm’s way to protect us, our country, our values, our families and our way of life. We ask our armed forces to defend their nation without regard to their own safety, and I am continually in awe of every one of those people who choose a military career.
I am involved in many ways as a campaigner, and now as the local MP in north Northumberland, with serving military personnel, their families and veterans of all ages, for whom the covenant’s pledge has not always been a reality. I am acutely conscious of the fact that although many citizens agree with the covenant’s ideals and direction, far too many are not really aware of it and do not consider how they can make it a reality in their working lives or how their local community might be able to support the needs of military people and their loved ones. I am also aware that many of our serving and veteran personnel are not fully apprised of the commitment that the covenant gives to them and their families.
The Government’s commitment to all who serve and have served in our armed forces is clear: they and their families should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved. The covenant is clear about the areas in which it should apply. It covers healthcare, education, housing, deployment matters, family life, benefits and tax impacts, the responsibility of care, particularly during defence policy change periods, voting rights and support in transition and in life after service. It covers so many aspects of personnel’s lives, and every year since 2011 we have seen new projects and support being built to meet our covenant commitment and reported by the MOD to Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, but also on setting up the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant. In relation specifically to no disadvantage and to special consideration, a number of our constituents, and mine in particular, have concerns about housing. Perhaps she will touch on that and invite our hon. Friend the Minister to comment on it in his closing remarks as well.
Yes, I will cover that some more. It is a big area where work is beginning to develop, but we need to do a lot more to join the dots.
Colleagues here, as well as others, have raised many issues with me. They want to discuss areas of the covenant that are of concern to their constituents. I want to mention a few areas where I believe that commendation for progress made already is due and some concerns about areas where I believe the Government and MPs could take a lead to improve the current state of play.
First, and not only because I am an accountant, but because the exceptional work to support the covenant undertaken by many charities could not happen without it, I—
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) on their part in that. I want to touch on the point about charities. Obviously the armed forces covenant has progressed the outlook for people returning from deployment overseas. Two of my constituents, Pam and Al Sutton, were shocked a decade ago at the treatment of personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, so they started a charity, Troop Aid, and have raised millions of pounds for returning personnel. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to Pam and Al Sutton and, indeed, all those in the charities that help our returning troops?
I will. I have enjoyed some of the outcomes of Troop Aid. A great supporter of mine is also a great supporter of that extraordinary charity, which has done amazing work and continues to do so. I pay enormous tribute to Pam and Al Sutton and to so many people who, having had some connection with the armed forces—be it through a direct family relation or simply, as my hon. Friend identifies, a relationship in their community—have taken up the mantle of the covenant, which is exactly what we want to happen across the nation. This is about all of us respecting and honouring both those who put their lives in harm’s way and those who support them as they do that. We should encourage and praise to the rooftops all those who are willing to give up their time and energy to ensure that that can happen in practice.
Perhaps people do not do this too often, but I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for having the bright idea of channelling the LIBOR fines money directly into covenant projects. An initial fund of £35 million is backed up by an enduring £10 million a year, and in 2013 a further £100 million was added to it. This is a long-term and clear commitment by the Government, and I commend them for it. Charities small and large have been able to make great use of that funding stream to provide excellent local provision for housing, health support and business development opportunities for ex-service personnel. Those are real practical efforts, and the reality is that without some level of funding and Government commitment, all that energy out there—that human capital that wants to make the covenant reality—could not really make that happen.
The corporate covenant, which was launched in 2013, now has more than 700 companies signed up, which is a huge explosion in the last year—at the time of last year’s report there were two hundred-and-something. In the corporate world, a real energy is developing to understand what the covenant means in practice for our biggest businesses in terms of investing in our armed forces and how they can make best use of the energy and skills that all our personnel can bring. We are seeing real enthusiasm from many of those large organisations. They are supporting reservists and providing practical financial support for personnel when they are deployed. For instance, mobile phone contracts can now be put on hold—a practical, real-life improvement that makes things easier and does not leave personnel on deployment out of pocket. Those organisations are working with charities such as X-Forces to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of those who have recently left the forces, alongside spouses of personnel on active service, by helping them to set up their own businesses. In the last year, the charity has helped hundreds of new businesses to be started. Financial support from the likes of Barclays and PayPal, to help in the critical early months of building a new enterprise, is a really exciting part of the corporate covenant, and it is really working on the ground. I commend the Minister and his team on continuing to drive that forward.
As the nation becomes more tuned in to the military covenant principles—that is what we want to happen—many small and medium-sized businesses want to be involved, but the practical issues can be challenging for a business that has five or 10 employees. I know of several family businesses in Northumberland that seek to employ reservists and veterans, but we need to find practical ways to help them to achieve their aims, because doing so is not straightforward for them. It is a lot easier for a business that employs 1,000 people to have one or two reservists in the system and support them when they need to be deployed.
The community covenant, which has now taken off—I am told that every local authority has signed up and is working on action plans—is the next level of involvement. Families who are back in their communities and leading normal everyday lives might need to access the covenant principles.
I want to touch on the point about community covenants. I must put on the record the fact that I am a member of the parliamentary armed forces scheme, as are other Members here. I have, once again, received a distressing email from a constituent who is a disabled war pensioner. The treatment he is getting from my—award-winning, I have to say—council is very different from, and not as good as, the treatment that he would have got from a neighbouring county council. He does not want any extra treatment for the injuries that he suffered defending our country, but I believe that our veterans should be prioritised, whether in the NHS, in education or in housing. Perhaps the Minister can explore how we can make sure that there is a baseline for all community covenants, so that when people display—
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous with her time and making exactly the right points. Does she agree that variability goes hand in hand with good information? Whether we are talking about doctors not being aware of the covenant—I can provide a constituency example of that—or a local authority, such as Norwich City Council, not appearing to know what a bounty payment is, we need to educate people about the principles in the covenant and make this happen in a joined-up way.
That is exactly what we need to do. We call on the Minister to meet that challenge, and we will help. There is not an MP in the House who will not work with their local council and local communities to provide further support, improve their understanding of what they have signed up to and encourage them to draw together the practical outputs, which are so variable, into a cohesive whole so that we have best practice everywhere in the UK. The British Legion has published excellent best practice guides that give some clear guidance. Those guides can really support the armed forces champions in every council. More than that, we need to make real inroads to ensure that when the military families in each area need assistance, they are supported to the full. That is the point of the covenant: not only should military families suffer no disadvantage, but if there is a real need, we should be there to support them. There is a sense of that in the general population. The practicalities are, without doubt, difficult, but we need to continue to push that forward.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. My local authority has announced today that armed forces personnel, veterans and those who have the defence discount service card will be given free swimming. Will the Minister consider asking local authorities to publish an annual report on their progress, so that we can encourage them to join up their offers?
That is exactly the sort of practical, real-life example I have been talking about. It makes best use of the tools that the Government are putting out there for families, to help us to identify them and give them the practical support and wraparound affection that the covenant is there to offer. The hon. Lady anticipates my speech; I was going to say that, as with other strategies across Departments, we ask councils to submit a self-assessment report every year—I worked closely on that in the autism sector—and say to them, “As we are doing at a national level, would you please share this information with your communities?” That self-perpetuating encouragement raises the concept, the understanding and the reality of whether the covenant is working, whether in Birmingham, Bradford or Berwick.
I congratulate my hon. Friends on securing this debate, because it is important that we monitor the progress of the armed forces community covenant. I speak as somebody who, in a previous role as leader of Northampton Borough Council, introduced and signed the community covenant for Northampton. The council produced, and continues to produce, an annual report on what was happening. That was a welcome move, and it helps to reflect the work done by officers and councillors to bring forward this important measure.
We must also recognise that not all armed forces people know that the community covenant exists, so perhaps we need to do some work on making sure that when people leave the services, they are aware of it.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I absolutely concur. Within the community covenant framework, we also need find ways to join things up more effectively when families move. The nature of the armed forces is such that families are expected to move around the UK, and to and from the UK, so it is important that the system really supports them. We have endless examples of systems that do not.
I was very pleased, literally weeks after being elected, to be able to help a family who were leaving RAF Boulmer, in my constituency. The airman in question was leaving the service. He had been on a British Gas training course while he was still in Northumberland—fantastic—and he and his family wanted to move down south to be near his wife’s family. That was all good, and they were looking forward to it. They had found a school in the right area for their children, one of whom had special needs, but when they came to move, they could not find a house. It was impossible; there was not a house to be found. They could not register their children with the school because they were not in the right area, and the gentleman could not start his job because he was not yet registered in the right area.
The system seemed nonsensical, and the lovely family liaison lady at RAF Boulmer was pulling her hair out. As it turned out, she made the right phone call. I did not know anything about Banbury or Bicester, but I had a new colleague in the area, and between us, we were able to find a solution.
As the recipients of that delightful, hard-working, honourable and brave family, we in Bicester were delighted to welcome them to our area. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been much easier—without the intervention of MPs—if some sort of central hotline had been available to the family liaison officer, to enable her to access the line that I, in the end, accessed on the family’s behalf to help them to find a house? My hon. Friend may not be aware of the end of the story: the house that family moved into was an ex-services house.
I was not aware of that, and I am pleased to hear that we are making the best use of our property portfolio. That is most encouraging. Housing is a big part of the covenant’s challenge. The new forces Help to Buy scheme was introduced last year and has been incredibly successful. This year’s report has some really positive messages about that, both because armed forces families are very aware of it—it has been very well publicised—and because it is being taken up in very large numbers. It enables families to get on to, or stay on, the housing ladder as they resettle into civilian life.
I will be very brief. It would be a great idea if the period of time after which servicemen either joined or got married could count towards a local housing list—it could be a credit in some way. That would help a lot of people not just to get to the top of the list, but to get hold of a local house or flat.
I am sure that the Minister will consider my hon. Friend’s point and move forwards on one of the most critical areas that we need to ensure works smoothly for all armed forces personnel.
I have some concerns about two areas in the healthcare part of the covenant. First—this ties in with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—is the commitment that family members should maintain their position on waiting lists in the healthcare system even though they are moving around the UK due to new postings. I have been made aware several times that that commitment is not very well known in medical frameworks or to armed forces families. The 2015 report highlights that anecdotal evidence. In the tri-service families continuous attitudes survey, only 37% said that waiting times did not increase when they had to move. There is work to do in the NHS framework and on its commitment to the covenant to give the families better support and continuity of medical care.
I represent a garrison town and I am a former school governor of a predominantly military school. Does my hon. Friend agree that schools have a part to play? When members of the armed forces move, places should be available in schools that understand the military covenant, the important differences and, indeed, the important role that the service pupil premium can play in a school.
I have experience of the matter in respect of school places and housing. I have found that, by and large, armed forces families have more children than normal families—perhaps I should say the general population—because of their age group. It is a real issue. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that supporting our armed forces is so important? I congratulate her on her all-party parliamentary group.
My hon. Friend’s point is well made. The age demographic of service personnel is such that while those personnel are deployed on active service, we are supporting families who, in large numbers, have young children. Those of us who have had, or who are just coming to the end of having, young children, discover that it is a constant battle—let alone for those left holding the babies because their partner is out fighting someone somewhere a very long way away. Those left at home cannot say to their partner, “I’ve had enough. Could you take them for a minute so I can have a breath of fresh air?” They are on their own and that level of support, ensuring that the services around those families work, is vital.
I would be grateful if the Minister would help us to find a way for the NHS, as well as the education system, to work better in terms of its markers and identification so that moving does not create a disadvantage. So many forces personnel say to me, “We are not asking for special treatment. That is not what we want”, but they must not be disadvantaged. The nature of Army, Navy and RAF life—life within a military framework—means that it is more difficult for families just to have the stability they need.
I agree with all that the hon. Lady is saying, except in one respect. The one area for which I will praise the Government highly is the money that they have put into prosthetic limb care, and their commitment to ensuring that when armed forces personnel leave the armed forces, they continue to get the highest standard of prosthetic limb. Therefore, that is an area where service personnel should get better than average because they have certainly earned it.
Indeed, that is absolutely right. The covenant is clear that for general purposes, families should face no disadvantage, but for those who have suffered permanent injury or for families who have experienced a bereavement, special consideration should be given. There is a real investment in that field of the healthcare element of the covenant’s work. The system will obviously need to be fully maintained and financed forever, but individuals who need prosthetic support for life are in the system and it is working well to support them.
The Ministry of Justice is now asking those entering the prison system whether they are ex-military. The issue was brought to my attention as HMP Northumberland is in my constituency and two ex-military personnel have written to me in the past few months struggling with the support framework. My question to them was, “Does the prison know that you were in the Army?”, to which the answer was, “No, I never told anyone and nobody asked.” I am pleased that the Ministry of Justice is trying to turn that on its head. It is a voluntary system at the moment.
About 5% of the prison population are ex-military. Of those, 98% are male and more than a third are over 40, which is a much high proportion of older members of the prison population than the average prison age nationally. It is good news that we are at least starting to identify those people so that we can support them, but we need to find a way to overcome their fears that they are identifiable—for fear of violence in the prison—or any level of humiliation they may feel that they have ended up in the prison system. That is a real challenge that we need to face and it is frustrating from the covenant’s perspective because, as a nation, we want to ensure that those who have fallen off the wagon, so to speak, and end up in the criminal framework can get the right and full support that they need, because they are almost certainly there because of a lot of long-term damage.
Many former soldiers—90% of these people are ex-Army—have fallen away from the straight and narrow because of untreated mental health issues leading to alcohol and drug abuse, and a breakdown of family life. Family members are also left damaged and broken by the destruction that failing mental health can cause. The worst cases include slow and painful declines into homelessness, violence and criminality.
I am currently working with a family in Northumberland. The wife is extraordinarily committed and is absolutely determined to try to keep the family together. She is throwing everything at it but she is running out of steam and there is no framework. She says, “I can see where this is going, Mrs Trevelyan. I just know that it is all going to end in disaster.” We are battling to try to find the support that her husband needs, because broken mental health is a very complex thing to fix for those who have been in some really difficult situations.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that. I hope that we can share the knowledge of that charity more widely so that families who have a member in need in that crisis situation can reach out and get the support that that excellent funding will provide.
Across the country, we want our brave and damaged military heroes to receive the right support so that they can get well, start to rebuild their lives and try to rebuild their family lives for a positive future not just for them but for those around them. I ask the Minister, might we tackle this lack of rigorous and predictable identification with some sort of marker, perhaps alongside national insurance and NHS numbers? The nation wants individuals who have served—and their families, who have committed to protecting the nation—to be supported and for help to be made available to them as required. I hope very much that the defence medical information service programme is making good progress. It seems to be moving very slowly, but perhaps the Minister will update us on its status.
More widely on healthcare, the Minister will be aware that in the north-east—and, I understand, across the country—there are some serious gaps in the provision for mental health problems, which often appear long after veterans have left military service. The covenant is clear that veterans should receive priority treatment for a condition resulting from their service in the armed forces.
I put on record my thanks to the Minister for his work on veterans who suffer from mesothelioma, for exactly the reasons my hon. Friend outlines. Unfortunately, one of my constituents is suffering at the moment. He wanted to come to this debate but is unable to be here. He is one of those people who are not caught up in the Government’s changes, and I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet me outside the debate to talk about his progress. I put on record the thanks of people who suffer from mesothelioma. As my hon. Friend says, it is important that we ensure that veterans are not compromised by the service they give.
I am also being contacted on that particular issue, and I hope that the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant will be able to support the work of my hon. Friend and the Minister to find a solution ensuring that military sufferers of mesothelioma will not be discriminated against compared with sufferers in the civilian population.
A huge amount of time, thought and investment continues to go into physical rehabilitation programmes, as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) identified, with charities such as Help for Heroes opening bespoke rehabilitation centres. There are amazing technological developments in the world of prosthetics, and we are starting to see more investment in dental and primary care for these families, for whom there is respect and real support.
The challenge is that there simply is not capacity in the mental healthcare system to provide the necessary and often long treatment programmes needed to help those whose mental health starts to deteriorate long after they retire from military service. The covenant reference group, which is a group of experienced professionals and charities that oversees the report every year and provides an open, blunt commentary on the state of play—all credit to the Secretary of State for Defence for always allowing the group to go in, warts and all, so that those of us who are not experts can see the progress and really understand how the covenant is developing—highlights that the vast majority of our service families are incredibly resilient and just get on with it, whatever challenges are thrown at them, and provide unstinting support to their military spouses and partners, but the escalating problems are just too great for some families, who need to be able to access that help.
The latest covenant report, published in December, highlights the study of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research into mental health problems in armed forces personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there seems to be little focus on the needs of those who fought in conflicts during the 1980s and 1990s in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Balkans who are now starting to be hit by deep-rooted traumas coming to the fore. Combat Stress is one of our older charities, and it does extraordinary work with mental health complexity, which is not really addressed by the mainstream NHS support system. Combat Stress is at absolute capacity all the time, and too often veterans who have hit a deep hole are unable to access the complex and intense therapies needed to rebuild their shattered minds. We all have mental health, some of it good and some of it sometimes not so good. The Government are starting to change attitudes and investment focus to help the development of that area of medicine, but in the short term we cannot fail those veterans for whom the armed forces covenant was intended, those who need proper long-term mental health treatment now. Colleagues have much to say on that matter, and I hope the Minister will support us as we campaign for the right care programmes across the UK for these veterans.
This year has seen a hugely welcome new covenant commitment, with widows, widowers and surviving civil partners now able to retain their pensions for life, regardless of whether they remarry. Many constituents of mine have commented on their gratitude to the Prime Minister for making that decision as it allows bereaved family members to move forward with their lives with their family and with renewed hope. That is an excellent decision.
I have read all four covenant reports published by our Defence Secretaries since 2011, and it is clear that really good progress is made year on year, but I am also conscious that many people, including our military personnel past and present, are not as aware as we want them to be, and as the covenant principles want them to be, of the effort that is going into changing how our nation feels and behaves towards our armed forces personnel. It is our duty to help to encourage wider participation in the covenant. My challenge to myself is that, by the end of this Government, I want our whole nation to think about the covenant in their daily lives. I hope that colleagues from all corners of the UK and of every political colour will join us in building a nation that has at its heart, in every sphere of our lives, a deep understanding and practice of the moral obligation to our armed forces. We are free to live our lives as we wish in this great nation of ours thanks to the unstinting and total commitment of all those military personnel who stood and who stand ready to defend us now in the face of dangers, so many as yet unknown.
I thank the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for doing all the work to put this together. I am pleased to have this debate, but I am even more pleased to know that there is now an all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant that can sit down, listen to all the variations and learn from and help each other. Obviously I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say. It is lovely to have the APPG in place, as it is something that we all need.
As everyone knows, I long to see the United Kingdom be treated together as one: the Union. Members will hear me bash on about that throughout my time here. I thank all of those who have been involved with setting up the covenant, with the reports and with all the work, benefits and flexibilities in the covenant to help everyone. I also thank the armed forces, and I always will. We saw all those members of the armed forces who had to work all the way through Christmas to help people with the flooding.
As a Northern Irish MP, I will be highlighting some of the difficulties and problems we have in Northern Ireland, especially the difficulty our Executive have had, due to the way they are set up, in not being able to choose to be represented on the covenant reference group. From that, the Executive are therefore finding it impossible to spend the £10 million that is available. We need a better system—I will get into that in more detail.
In the report, and in listening to the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, it is fascinating to hear about all the good things that are in place and about how we can help each other. Reading the report, I thought that the Welsh seem to be leading in many areas, with many great ideas, although that is probably a little unfair on the English and the Scottish. There are so many good ideas, and we should embrace them all and make them work. I particularly like the fact that Wales has champions for veterans and armed forces personnel on every health board and every NHS trust, and that the Welsh Government are fully involved with the strategic development of the veterans’ hearing fund— I cannot speak, let alone hear.
We have the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland, as everyone knows, and with that comes many difficulties and problems, particularly with health. There are also legal problems, including on hearing. Veterans often suffer from having to come to this side of the water to deal with their cases, which they are not being allowed to deal with in Northern Ireland. In a few cases, veterans have found that because they served somewhere else in addition to Northern Ireland—even if they did just two or three months—their cases are being rejected because Northern Ireland has been treated differently. We need to find a way of accepting all armed forces veterans from the past, from the troubles all the way through, and treating everybody the same.
I have a constituent in Northern Ireland who is a former lance corporal in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers—I hope the Minister can hear this story—who served in Iraq and Kosovo. He has been to Hollybush and is 40% disabled today. He was advised to apply for retrospective medical discharge two years ago and has yet to hear a response. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the covenant operated fully in Northern Ireland, that outcome might be slightly different?
I agree entirely. That is just one example, and I and many others have plenty more examples of where the system does not work especially well. We need a slicker, faster system that works. I will go into that a little later.
Returning to the good things that Wales is doing, particularly on mental health, veterans there can access Veterans NHS Wales services and can refer themselves, if they think they have post-traumatic stress disorder, via the Royal British Legion, SSAFA or the Veterans Welfare Service. It is really hard in Northern Ireland for people with PTSD to be taken seriously and treated. They have to go across the water. It is paid for so they can get that help, but at the moment there is no easy way of referring people. Looking back at our system and our troubles, it is not just about Afghanistan or Iraq; it goes right back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. We have many people with mental difficulties to help. In those days, PTSD was hidden away. We need to ensure that Northern Ireland has a much better system that focuses less on coming here.
I went to a very good briefing four years ago with a brigadier who showed us a great, slick organisation for dealing with everyone—ex-Ulster Defence Regiment and ex-police—and helping them, but what was happening in my office showed that they were not able to get there. The right people were there, and there were lots of people doing great work, but people were being let down. I will give one example.
I was called by a family who said that their dad was suffering from ill health. He was in a psychiatric hospital and was threatening to commit suicide, but the hospital kept saying that he was fine and sending him home. Home could not cope, so he went back into hospital and was there for two or three weeks. I went to see him once. When we got to telling war stories and chatting, he lightened up; it was fun. His wife said to me that that was the first time in four or five years that she had seen him relax.
I went away and carried on with the other work that we were doing, and he went back to normal. The long and short of it was that he kept being sent home, despite my efforts to get the hospital to keep him there and look after him. One day he put on his waders, walked into the local reservoir and killed himself. We had all the signals, but we would not recognise them, and we let that family down. That is just one example.
I note all the great things that Scotland is doing. Focusing on education, Scotland has systems in place—I mention this for good reason—to ensure that local authorities know when a child is from a service family. In Northern Ireland, that would be very difficult. There is still a security situation. It is not in newspapers here all the time, but for us, things haven’t gone away, you know—if I may use that awful phrase. There are still troubles and security issues. Military hospitals in Great Britain, for example, will not send information across to Northern Ireland. I will give two examples of the consequences.
A military spouse had been receiving long-term treatment for Crohn’s disease in Northallerton in North Yorkshire. She was registered as a military wife. When her husband was discharged they moved back to Northern Ireland, but because the military wing of the Northallerton hospital would not forward her records, the treatment was not continued, resulting in long-term damage and, finally, major surgery. Also, some drugs that she was given in Great Britain were not funded in Northern Ireland.
In another example, someone registered for a course at Ulster University and was dismayed when he had to submit a credit note with all his military details to the university finance department, which then lost it. It was eventually found, but of course he had lost confidence, as so many other people have. We need to find a new system. People in Northern Ireland will not use the armed forces loyalty card, because it shows that they are in the armed forces. I could give more examples of the security reasons why people do not feel able to use it. We need to find a better way.
The Irish, as hon. Members will know, like fighting. We have a particularly long history and record in the Army. I always smile when I think of learning in Roman history during my schooldays that Agricola, having just taken England, looked to Ireland but was advised, “They like fighting among themselves too much,” so the Romans never came to Ireland. Maybe things would have changed if they had, but hon. Members will all know that we have a long record of being part of the services. Between 2008 and 2011, more than 20% of those deployed on the ground were from Northern Ireland, which has 3% of the UK population. Just under 7% of reservists are from Northern Ireland. More importantly, we have the best recruiting in the whole United Kingdom. We are honoured to be part of the forces, but on the other side of things, some 65,000 Northern Irish served during the troubles. We experience it on a different scale, and it goes back a long way.
I am not sure how much we are meant to declare as an interest in this debate, but I will have a military pension, albeit a small one, so I had better declare that. I was a Household Cavalry officer, and I served in the Black Watch in 1983 in west Belfast, where my family had had a business for 100 years. Two or three years later, I was squadron leader of the North Irish Horse. My reason for saying so is that I am now an honorary colonel, so I am still involved. I thought that I had better declare my interests; I am still very much and very proudly involved with the North Irish Horse, and I am part of the Scottish and Northern Irish Yeomanry, which has a terrific history. I look forward to seeing it thrive, as we are recruiting well. Hon. Members will know that the reserves are the backbone of the armed forces, especially at the moment.
I referred in my maiden speech to the Union Brigade at Waterloo. It would have been good to see the Irish, the Scottish and the English all charging together as part of that brigade. Today, 100 years after the Somme, we should remember that not just the Northern Irish but every part of the United Kingdom gave lives there. Next year we will commemorate the battle of Messines, in which the Irish and the Ulster divisions fought together. We have a long history.
To return to the difficulties in Northern Ireland, as I said, the Executive have chosen not to be part of the covenant reference group, which makes it difficult to spend the £10 million fund. We still have a security situation, as I mentioned, in which one side of our politics, the nationalist side, will not recognise our armed services, and many will still not wear the poppy. I long for things to move on and for people to remember, but some still see us as imperialist and cannot get beyond that, despite my efforts to point out the great work done in Sierra Leone, and by the Navy with refugees in the Mediterranean and against pirates off the coast of Africa. I am very proud of our armed services. We must ensure that the covenant works for everyone well into the future.
This is an example of how we have not moved on in some respects: I was shocked to find, after the debate in which I proudly voted for action in Syria, a tweet from one of the Sinn Féin Members of Parliament saying, “There we go; typical British Army, carrying on murdering civilians,” or words to that effect. That was from someone that I had personally helped while in the Assembly. I am proud to say that I would still help them, but we in Northern Ireland need to find a way to move on. I call on the nationalists and those of similar thinking to move into the democratic world and accept everything that has gone on. Let us make things work. That is what will move us on. The covenant working in Northern Ireland will allow us all to deal with matters.
I feel that the hon. Gentleman is bringing his comments to a conclusion. Before he does so, on behalf of Welsh MPs and the Welsh Assembly, I thank him for his kind comments about the work that we are trying to do in Wales. His speech has been moving. I hope that his words about the fact that we are a United Kingdom, and that our armed forces and our commitment to their service must unite us all, are heard.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those comments. We must all keep working together to make things happen. My main point is that I want the same treatment for all the armed services and veterans. It is difficult that in Northern Ireland we have had to spend our lives ensuring that our veterans are at no disadvantage. I want to celebrate them, not just consider how we can ensure no disadvantage. Yes, I realise that politics is involved, but these are people who have fought and heroes who have worked hard and given their blood while their families have had rotten times at home. Let us all work together to support everyone. I really want to see Westminster helping us to put things in place if we do not move on, otherwise we are stuck.
Members here may not know that our councils in Northern Ireland do not have the power or responsibilities in education, health and housing that exist up at Stormont, where of course we have this enforced, and at times dysfunctional, coalition. That is why it does not work—because we need both sides going there—which is why I want to see Westminster not just sitting back, but making it work. We need the Ministry of Defence and certain elements of the armed services on this side not to fall foul of Northern Ireland politics, but to make things happen. We need them to stop pussyfooting around and saying, “We can’t do that, because Sinn Fein are likely to say no,” or, “You can’t do that, because they may say no.” We need to look here at all the things that the covenant is trying to do, put legislation in place and make it happen.
I praise the reserve forces in Northern Ireland for what they are trying to do, because they have the long-term influence in Northern Ireland—by talking to the companies and to the people on the ground for the reserves. They are often used as the ones who understand the politics a little bit more—and, of course, they fall foul of it at times; nevertheless, they work phenomenally hard trying to make it work.
I also praise one or two Unionist colleagues. If a Unionist Minister has a portfolio, they can at least do some things that are not the decisions of the Executive. For example, our Health Minister in the past, Michael McGimpsey, was able to put in a health protocol to be followed. However, if we cannot get hold of that ministry, we may never be able to change things, and that is why we need help from this place.
I certainly want to praise one of our Members of the Assembly—Andy Allen, who is a new Assemblyman for us there. He lost both legs below the knee in Afghanistan and he has lost 80% of his eyesight, but he is there in the Assembly, doing his best. He found it phenomenally difficult when he came back to get things working, so he set up his own investment charity, with others, to provide support for veterans and their families in Northern Ireland. He should not have had to do that, but he had to; he had to pull it all together.
I also want to praise Doug Beattie, our councillor, who has a Military Cross, for his work in getting covenant champions in each of the councils. The councils may not have the responsibility, but Doug and others saw that if there was a champion in each council area, they could at least feed through relevant matters to the powers that be. So far, we have five councils out of 11 that have put forward a champion. There is a long way to go and there will be some there that will probably never do it, unless we move on.
I also want to praise the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who came over before the last election and met with the Democratic Unionists, with ourselves, to discuss these matters. We went through them, and she at the time said, “Look, come direct to me if there are difficulties.” Then elections have happened and we have had a change, but I would like to see the same thing happening. If it is not working in Northern Ireland, can we please come through to a central point here to make things work?
However, one of the biggest precluding factors is section 75 in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which arose from the Belfast agreement and which does not allow us to discriminate positively or negatively, including positively for servicemen. Government assistance in removing that legislative impediment to operating the covenant would be most useful.
We are aware of the DUP wish to go down the section 75 route. We are not sure we agree with that system. We are not keen to have the armed forces seen as a minority or dealt with in that way. There is much more that we need to work our way through, although I certainly praise Brenda Hale. She has been magnificent in coming into the Assembly, having lost her husband, and working through on armed forces issues. She has been extremely good.
Can the hon. Gentleman also bring himself to acknowledge the change—a subtle change, but a change nevertheless—of attitude within the nationalist tradition within Northern Ireland? That change certainly struck me when I was a Northern Ireland Minister. It is difficult for many, but it is definitely there in terms of attitude towards the armed forces and, interestingly, in connection with the centenary to which he has referred, whereby for the first time there are members of the nationalist community who are prepared to talk about relatives who served during the great war.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much; I am very glad he has raised that matter. There have been huge changes in my time at home and we have seen many people from the nationalist side come on board—that is why I said “some” earlier, but sadly that “some” on the other side are the ones who drive everything against us. I remember going down to Dublin and being told to take my poppy off. That was a long time ago, but we have seen the visits of the Queen and the Duke. So much is changing in Ireland—Northern Ireland is getting there. There are some quite fantastic people leading in what they are doing, and from the nationalist community as well.
If I can talk about prisons, I know that in Northern Ireland we also have a high percentage of veterans in our prisons. I met Care after Combat a few months ago. It is not involved in Northern Ireland, but I look forward to seeing it work there, because we need a great deal of help. We also need to help all the other veterans’ groups. Sometimes I think we have too many veterans’ groups, but that is not their fault; it is because so many people are seeing that things not working for them. We need to find a better way of pulling all the veterans’ groups together and making sure that they are actually helped.
Hon. Members will have had enough from me today, but what I really want to see is Westminster and this side of the water helping to ensure things are put in place. If I can go back to my comment earlier, we must stop pussyfooting around, use common sense and make things work for our veterans.
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. If I may say so, Mr Hanson, I wish that the screens in Westminster Hall better indicated who is speaking here and what the topic is here, rather than who is speaking in the main Chamber. Currently it is rather hard sometimes to follow the debate here. That is a point that is perhaps worth making.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I particularly respect what he has had to say because standing up for the armed forces or serving the armed forces in Northern Ireland is a significantly more difficult thing to do than for those of us who are in areas such as mine in Wiltshire, where almost the most natural and easy thing to do in the world is to stand up for the armed forces. To do so in Northern Ireland, in the way that he has described, is particularly difficult, so I pay particular tribute to him and the points that he made, and I know that the Minister and the Government will listen very carefully to them.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) and her two male colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer)—for having the initiative to call for this outstandingly good and useful debate. As she said, it is very important that we discuss the armed forces covenant. We should be doing so on an annual basis and I was astonished to discover—perhaps it is my fault and I should have called for such a debate myself—that we have not done so after the previous three annual reports on the covenant. So I respect and pay tribute to the way that she has done that, and very much hope that this example will be followed in future years. We could actually debate every year what progress has been made in the implementation of the covenant.
I should first of all say that the covenant itself is an outstandingly useful and worthwhile document, and I pay tribute to the then Labour Government, which first created such a document. They did not write it into law, but it was their idea to write down a contract that had been in existence for many centuries—that invisible contract between society and our armed forces. It was the Labour Government that said, “This time, we ought to codify, write down and make it plain, create a metric of it”. It was then a Conservative Government that wrote the observance of the covenant into law, which again was a very worthwhile thing to do, and the annual reports that we are now producing are extremely good.
No one in the debate today—indeed, no one in the Palace of Westminster and probably nobody in Britain—would disagree with the fundamental principle behind the covenant, namely that we ask our armed service people to do things that we ourselves would under no circumstances consider doing, and that in return for that we provide support for them. That is support of every kind. I will come back in a moment to talk about veterans and support for people who have suffered as a result of their service in the armed forces, but that support is not the purpose behind the covenant.
The covenant is about supporting people in our armed services every day of their lives, and their families. There are about 200,000 people who currently serve in our armed forces and do a brilliant job of doing it. There are also their families. If we take 200,000 people and consider regular turnover, probably a million people, or something of that sort, in Britain today have served in the last 20 years. Add their families to that number and we are talking about 2 million, 3 million or 5 million people who are being affected by service in the forces. The purpose behind the covenant is to ensure that they are not disadvantaged as a result of that service. It is about enabling them to go off to places around the world, to serve in the way that they do—they do so superbly well—and to ensure that their families are given education, housing, medical support and all the other things that they deserve. Those are things that they must have as service families.
I pay tribute to the variety of charities that do those things so extremely well. I am proud to be a patron of Recruit for Spouses, which provides jobs for the spouses of armed service personnel. I am also a patron of Mutual Support, which looks after service people with multiple sclerosis, as the initials indicate. A whole host of other similar charities of one sort or another do all sorts of things to help the families of our armed services.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and comments on the charities that do so much good work. Would he join me in sending the wonderful volunteers at HorseBack UK all our best wishes as they try to deal with the flooding affecting their premises in Aberdeenshire?
I was not aware of the particular circumstances that the hon. Lady mentions, but if that is occurring in west Aberdeenshire—I know the area extremely well—I of course wish them well in their work, and I hope that they successfully rehabilitate their premises.
An enormous number of military charities across the board are doing all sorts of good work for people who are serving, for their families and for veterans. I am glad that they do that work. I am proud to be wearing the SSAFA tie this afternoon. Such organisations, which include the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes—we spoke about them earlier—are outstandingly good charities doing outstandingly good work for our armed services.
One or two of the speeches this afternoon have focused on those who are disadvantaged because of their service in the armed forces, but that seems to misunderstand slightly the nature of the covenant. Of course it is right that people who have been injured in warfare, whether physically or mentally, should be looked after properly. Of course it is right that when people have come back and have all sorts of difficulties—whether they find themselves in prison or have problems with drugs or drink or other issues—we should look after them properly. That, however, is a very small part of the covenant.
The covenant is a broad document that concerns every aspect of the armed forces and every aspect of how we look after those who we ask to do jobs that we ourselves would not do. It is right that on such an occasion as this we should celebrate the triumph of the magnificent armed forces, their fantastic work and how we in this place are duty-bound to look after them and say, “Thank you very much” for what they do.
The covenant usefully covers what happens during a person’s active service. In North Wiltshire we have a huge military presence, and a great many cases come to my notice, including bullying in the armed forces, failure to be promoted and all sorts of other things that might go wrong in a serviceman’s career. The covenant says that we must look after our armed servicemen and what they are doing on the ground. We must encourage them in their careers and help and support them. They have a difficult job to do. Often they are away from their families and are asked to do all kinds of things that we would not normally do ourselves. Their career path must be encouraged and supported by what we do, and the covenant must take account of that.
I will focus on one particular aspect this afternoon in my brief contribution. I must be careful about my language, but it is what the press have called “ambulance-chasing lawyers”. That issue does not really appear in the armed forces covenant, but perhaps it should. Lawyers have been trawling around Iraq in particular, finding people who allege some form of abuse by our armed forces in Iraq 10 or 15 years ago. That has been highlighted in particular with the lawyers, Leigh Day, which behaved very badly in the al-Sweady inquiry, wasting £31 million of public money in pursuing a case that should not have been pursued in the first place. A whole variety of other lawyers are doing similar work in Iraq today.
We must be very aware of that issue because it does not only affect our veterans. It must be terribly worrying for large numbers of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan when they did things perfectly correctly under orders and behaved naturally, but some lawyers for their own financial reasons are seeking to investigate what they did. That must also have an effect on the operational capabilities of our forces today. Any soldier doing something might have to think, “What would happen if I got this wrong? What would happen if I breach some rule? What will happen if, in 10 or 15 years’ time, the law changes and the law comes back and haunts me and seeks to arrest me or prosecute me for something that I should have perfectly happily been doing under the law?”
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who wrote a magnificent paper about “lawfare” called “The Fog of Law”. He wrote it with Laura Croft, if I remember rightly. That fine paper lays out precisely how the law might interfere with operational effectiveness on the ground, and we have seen that issue become a great deal worse in recent years.
I would not want what has been a consensual, pleasant and important debate to become party political in any shape, size or form—it would be quite wrong if it did—but it is none the less worth noting that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who was appointed just yesterday, is in receipt of £45,000 of cash from this particular bunch of lawyers. It is she who, among other things, described that firm as a “great firm”. Our armed servicemen, who are worried about whether they will be picked up by that “great firm”, might be worried by her attitude.
You make an extremely good point, Mr Hanson. If I were in your place, which I often am, it is a point I would be making myself to speakers of my kind. None the less, it is worth reflecting on the fact that people serving around the world are taking difficult and often instant decisions. If there is a flicker in the jungle, they may fire at it. Was that the right thing to have done? The difficulty with these cases is that servicemen do not know whether someone will come looking for them in 10 or 15 years’ time, saying, “You should not have done that. You are arrested.” There are a number of particularly high-profile cases at the moment. We took part in a debate in the Chamber not so long ago on Marine A.
The simple point I make is that our contract with our armed forces asks them to do things that we would not. Part of that contract must give them the freedom, the rights and the ability to carry out things—to close with the Queen’s enemy and kill them if necessary; they do not want to do that, but if they have to do that, they have to do that—without excessive intervention by the law courts, whether domestically or even in the International Criminal Court. One thing that we might consider writing into the covenant is some approach to the whole question of “lawfare”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling described it.
Leaving that to one side, the document is superb. I am pleased that the annual report that we produced recently demonstrates further work and further advances in a whole variety of areas. That is good. The covenant is incredibly important and I am glad that we are reviewing it every year. I hope very much that there will be debates in this Chamber in years to come, and that in those debates we will be able to record for posterity that every year we are giving our armed services greater respect and looking after them and their families in an ever better way.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hanson. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for his kind words on my paper, “The Fog of Law”, which was published a couple of years ago. That paper is only more relevant, sadly, given that various trials—we warned of them several years ago—are coming to fruition. Young men who took decisions on our behalf are being unfairly pressured into answering for actions that were fundamentally of the Government and therefore of this House, rather than their own. When considering the covenant, it is important that we consider the individuals—they are carrying out requests not on their behalf, but on ours.
I should immediately declare an interest, as I am still serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces as a reserve officer. I have many friends who continue to serve in uniform, and I am proud to say that they do. The points I was going to make on the military covenant have already been made, so I will limit my comments a little more than others may have needed to.
The fundamental point of the covenant is that it is not just something that we give to those in the armed forces: the possibly 1 to 4 million people that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire referred to; it is actually how we ensure our own future. All relationships and human interactions are fundamentally reciprocal. In the give and take of the armed forces covenant is the extension of the commitment we make to our troops. It is the extension of buying a proper uniform, of making sure the troops are properly armed, trained, paid and motivated. Part of that is the covenant. If we get that wrong, we not only fail to look after those who served us with great honour and courage, but we weaken ourselves, because we discourage the best and the brightest of every generation who have served with great fortitude in our armed forces. Indeed, everyone from the grandson of the monarch to the grandson of anybody else has served in our armed forces.
We discourage people from serving, and in doing so we weaken ourselves. I therefore argue that the military covenant is not an act of generosity or normalisation, but of self-defence. We must look at it very clearly as such, because self-interest in this area is sometimes the way to get the best result out of the Exchequer. The Chancellor has already been generous, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) identified, but it is important that we do not see the stories, which we occasionally see, about servicemen having to sell homes to fund the purchase of prosthetic limbs, and it is important that other veterans are not forced out of the family home in search of medical help. We need to make sure that such duties are taken on by society, not only because it is the right, moral and honourable thing to do, but because it is the best, safest and most sensible thing to do.
I look forward very much to our covenant coming to fruition and the reports building one upon another, so that we get to a state where what we are really arguing about is tweaks and turns and not substance, because, as we build up that covenant, we build up our own defence. That covenant is not only about the individuals, but about the families. When I speak to serving members of the armed forces today, I know that part of that covenant is also about the way in which we treat the serving families. I am particularly struck time and again when people—my friends in the armed forces—talk to me about things such as continuity of education. Some people have seen it as a luxury; some have said it is a way to support various families to continue a form of education that has long gone from most people in society. It is not. It is a way of ensuring that families who move around—men and women who serve overseas at the drop of a hat, who leave home and family and go away—can continue to ensure that their children are properly cared for; that they enjoy the opportunities that they rightly deserve; and that, where the family is staying at home in one location, they enjoy it.
How do I know that? If we look at any large employer or any of the large multinationals that regularly move people and take staff and say, “You were a director of X in London; you are now a director of Y in Paris, New York or Nigeria,” one of the essential parts of the package of employment is always education. No father or mother will accept to impoverish their children’s future. It is wrong that we should ask serving members of today’s armed forces to do that, which is why I strongly support the continuity of education allowance. It is essential not only in terms of recruiting and maintaining the quality of personnel—officers and other ranks; many apply for it—but to guarantee the commitment to maintain that we have the best and the brightest for the future.
I want to talk a little about the law. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire has spoken extremely eloquently about it. The law can be used in both ways. It can be used quite rightly to support the actions of our armed forces and to defend them. That is exactly what the Geneva convention is for: to control and regulate the conduct of operations in battle. However, it is also right that we use the appropriate law. Sadly, in recent years a legal doctrine has grown up in which we have started to use inappropriate legislation, and we have started to treat soldiers as policemen. Once again, this is not just a nicety and choosing which element we like or do not like; this is fundamentally about the security of the state and the liberty of the individual. If we start to view people who are not policemen but soldiers and treat them like civilians, various operations become impossible.
It would be wrong to ask the police to storm a building knowing that they would take casualties of 5% or 10%, and yet we asked young men to do that on the beaches of Normandy. It would be wrong to ask the police to go into a riot situation knowing that five or 10 of them would probably be killed, but that is exactly what we did at Mount Tumbledown in the Falkland Islands. We do it again and again, because what we ask servicemen to do is not the job of a civilian. It is not the job of a policeman, a doctor or a fireman; it is something more than that. We literally ask them to put their lives on the line.
The deal is up to death, and that deal makes the covenant different, but it also means that the legal protection that is required to enable soldiers to act and to operate is also different. They must have the right to act. They must have the ability to act in a sensible and reasonable way. This does not mean that they must have the right to break the law; they do not and should not. This does not mean that the Geneva convention is irrelevant; it is not and it should not be. This does not mean that they should be allowed to commit murder, rape, looting or anything else. They are not and should not.
What it does mean is this: soldiers take split-second decisions—hard decisions—that young men and women were taking every day when I was in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 18 and 21-year-olds—junior commanders; sometimes more senior—were taking split-second decisions and then, 10 years later, in the cool of the courtroom, were being asked to justify to people who had never walked on to a beach without getting into a sweat how they could have made such a decision, evaluated the situation they saw before them, and taken a call. What was actually happening was that the serviceman or woman in question was being asked to justify the decisions of this House that sent them there, and that is wrong. That is why it is right that the appropriate law, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire put it, is the law that should apply, and not the European Court of Human Rights. In this case I have argued against various articles, in the paper “The Fog of Law”.
There is another point I want to make about the covenant: it must apply as widely as we can make it. Many have served our armed forces with huge honour and distinction around the world, and I include the enormously courageous interpreters I served with in Afghanistan. I include the Iraqis who sadly lost their lives serving next to us, but in the Queen’s uniform—they were dressed as we were—as interpreters. We owe them a duty of care, too. This covenant does not cover them—I understand that—but the generosity of Her Majesty’s armed forces and Her Majesty’s Government must include them. Only by doing so will we ensure that we get the best people to serve alongside us in our time of need. Those interpreters were not extras. They were not a luxury. They were not an add-on to our fighting capability; they were integral to it. Only by getting that right will we maintain the fundamental combat power that the British armed forces deploy on operations. It is absolutely right that we extend the covenant rights, as much as is possible and is reasonable, to those who have served alongside us.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the interpreters, and we are making some steps in the right direction there, but there are of course large numbers of other contractors of one sort or another, who in many cases serve right up at the frontline. To a greater or lesser degree they, too, should be covered by the terms of the military covenant.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I agree entirely with what he just said.
I want to bring in one other aspect: the fact that many, many young men and women from various other countries have served in Her Majesty’s uniform. Our recruitment system is blessed in having young men and women from all over the world who want to come and serve in our armed forces. My information may be out of date, but when I joined the armed forces, more men and women from the Republic of Ireland were serving in the British Army than were in the Republic’s army. Those young men and women, who serve in the Queen’s uniform, deserve as much protection as we can give them. Ireland is an independent state, and quite rightly so, but it is absolutely right that Her Majesty’s Government should recognise their service and, where appropriate, offer the same support through the covenant that British servicemen would enjoy anywhere else. The same is true of Nigeria, Nepal or South Africa. Young men and women have come from those countries, sometimes in great numbers, and served alongside us. I urge the Minister to look very closely at how, through the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, Her Majesty’s Government can support communities that have sent young men and women to fight alongside ours.
Finally, I should say that the covenant is not always essential, because some of us have benefited disproportionately from our armed service. I have benefited massively from the camaraderie. I have benefited hugely from the education and the training. I have benefited completely from the moral ethos and the integrity that has, quite rightly, been rammed into us all. Military service is not a disadvantage. It is not a handicap. It is in no way something that should hold one back. It does not. In the vast majority of cases, military service empowers, enables and liberates people. It takes young men and women, often those who have been failed by the civilian services in our society, and gives them the leg up that they always needed, and a sense of discipline and purpose. The covenant is not a negative. It is not always about correcting a fault. It is about recognising where we can do that little bit more.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) for the opportunity to speak in this debate. There can be no doubt about the growth in relevance of the armed forces covenant at this crucial time at the end of conventional combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been at war in the public eye for some time. It is now critical that we get things right and put veterans’ care on a sustainable footing, thereby ensuring that they receive the very best levels of care, as is our duty.
Over Christmas, I read the Ministry of Defence report into the armed forces covenant and was heartened by much of what I read. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous of me not to report what I have seen and felt, not only in Plymouth but throughout the country, which is in some cases a little different from what is in the report. The covenant’s core principle is that no one should be disadvantaged as a result of service. However, the truth is that servicemen and women are finding that the support they have come to rely on in the military falls away when they become veterans. There is, if one likes, a support cliff, of which there is clear evidence. One example of many is the Chavasse report by Professor Tim Briggs, which focuses on the unique needs of those with complex musculoskeletal injuries who are being discharged by the MOD or the Defence Medical Services into an NHS system that cannot entirely address their needs.
We have heard a lot of examples today, which I do not wish to repeat. My comments on the military covenant will be more holistic and strategic. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning a story that came out in the summer, when we were in recess. Clive Smith, who served in Afghanistan, found himself having to remortgage his house so that he could walk again. While he was serving in the military, his prosthetics care gave him four years of freedom, but when he left he found himself falling directly off the support cliff. Fed up with feeling disadvantaged, Clive reacted in the traditional Army fashion by finding the solution in a trip to Australia for controversial treatment to directly fix sockets to his upper legs—so-called osseointegration. LIBOR funding has just been approved for limited trials of the procedure to start in the United Kingdom, but Clive is fed up and his faith in the system has been lost. That he should feel that way after sacrificing so much for our nation is simply unacceptable. If the covenant is working, we need to ask why that is happening.
There are plenty of examples like that, but, as I said, I want to keep my comments brief and offer a more strategic and holistic view of the military covenant across the service community. I will be as brief as I can in trying to highlight a couple of key issues that need attention.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
To pick up where I left off, we have heard a lot of examples today, and such examples are sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful, but I want to focus on broadbrush, strategic views of the military covenant across the service community—not only my own views, but those of a plethora of friends who remain in post. I will be as brief as I can as I try to highlight a couple of key areas.
There is a key problem with the corporate covenant in our large companies, and this was identified in the report, which is great. There is an appetite among our chief executives and business leaders—I have seen this—to support Government efforts to implement the corporate covenant. It is really important that we have that big company buy-in and agreement to what we are trying to do, but getting the information to the shop floor—the interface between our servicemen and women and these bigger companies—where it really matters, so that veterans receive the benefits associated with the military covenant, is, unfortunately, another matter entirely.
As I say, the issue is covered in the report, but I want to add to what the report says, not just repeat it. I want to do that because this issue was raised 12 months ago, but, unfortunately, little change can be seen. The point is really important because if we make a big public show of signing up large companies to the covenant, but the effects are not felt in the armed forces and in the veterans’ community, that can increase the feeling of tokenism that can so often be associated, rightly or wrongly, with such schemes. I will touch on that briefly at the end of my comments.
Another key area that really matters to our servicemen and women and to our veterans’ community is financial disadvantage. That is the subject of an ongoing project in the MOD, but it cannot be right that British Forces Post Office numbers are still not recognised by some companies, meaning that some service overseas personnel do not have three years of continuous residence, for example. That continues to cause them real and significant problems when they access certain financial products in this country.
On another financial issue, I noted with interest in the report the fact that some mobile phone companies are allowing soldiers to pause their contracts while they complete service overseas. I would suggest that that is a very modest step, and not really one to hang our hat on, because I was able to do that as far back as 2007. It is important that we recognise the small steps, but they must be set in perspective, given the challenge of ensuring that we meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to people facing “no disadvantage” due to their military service.
For me, that strikes at the very heart of the challenge of implementing the military covenant. Reading the report, there is no doubt that significant progress has been made. However, while some soldiers are required to look abroad for care and to fund their recovery personally, while some still struggle to access the myriad brilliant veterans’ service providers in the third sector, and while it is only in the last 12 months that we have begun to see a slightly better transition of medical records from the military to civilian GPs, the Government must see this report in context, and set it against the increasing demand and the narrowing timeframe, if they are to get this subject right.
There is no doubt that the military covenant has been a step forward on the part of the Government in how we look after our servicemen and women, and I welcome that. However, it remains without teeth and without enforcement, and we expect servicemen and women and veterans to enforce the spirit and will of it themselves, so it is, unfortunately, felt in some areas of the country to be empty promises.
We are at a critical juncture in how we look after our servicemen and women and our veterans’ community. Some have long spoken of the need to get this issue right, and many of us will remain forever indebted to those noble individuals who have stepped up and delivered veterans’ care in the charity sector simply because that needed to be done. However, if we are to put veterans’ care on a sustainable basis, now is the time to deliver. In five years, it will be too late; the problem will be too large, and the recent conflicts will be forgotten.
How we look after our servicemen and women and their families is a mark of how professional we see them as and how seriously we take our military in these globally unsettling times. Looking after those who have been prepared to sacrifice so much is a crucial and full part of combat operations; indeed, it is of equal importance to the other parts.
When it comes to finance, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have channelled millions into the sector. We owe it to them and to the country to make sure that the existing finance is sweated accordingly. I understand that we live in times of financial restraint, and that is a common objection to reform. I take this opportunity to remind the Government, however, that if we can afford to conduct operations abroad, we can afford to look after our people when they return; if we cannot afford to look after those who do our bidding, we must not send them. This is that important.
Next Tuesday, I will be reacting to an important study by King’s College London into the scale of the problem we face in meeting our veterans’ needs. On the back of that, I will release a report I have written in partnership with others calling for the total reform of the way we look after veterans’ care. Such reform is necessary if we are successfully to meet their needs, as is our duty.
The aims of that reform are bold but simple. It seeks to eradicate gaps in the veterans’ care system. It seeks no fear or favour from any of our brilliant charity sector service providers or, indeed, the Government, who have done more than any before them to get this right. It is simply an objective attempt to reconfigure services around the user and to ensure that the Government play their part in delivering what is a function of operations—looking after those who serve.
The Government’s report is encouraging, and it makes wide reference to what is going into the arena of military support, but, critically, it fails to provide any meaningful statistical reference to the single most important measure of success: what our military community actually got out of this. No one seems to be tracking that against a common, easy-to-grasp metric, and there is no user-focused data on what the beneficiary community think about what is on offer or on their broader views of the military covenant.
I conclude by asking the Government to pay close attention to the report that King’s College London will release on Tuesday. It would be a good idea to work out how many men and women, along with their families, got the fair second chance Theodore Roosevelt referred to when he said:
“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for securing a debate on this important matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady.
As I rise to sum up for the Scottish National party, I am struck by the support on both sides of the Chamber for our armed forces and the work they do. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) noted, we have a special obligation to members of our armed forces, including our reserve forces, and to those who have served. The armed forces covenant recognises that, which is very welcome, but we need to focus on making sure that we back up its fine sentiments with real, measurable action and that that makes a difference. We need to make sure that the UK Government address concerns in a number of areas—for instance, welfare and pensions.
There have been many useful and thoughtful contributions this afternoon, and the tone hon. Members have adopted is notable. It is evident that, as a group, we wish to see a clear and consistent position—one where our armed forces and our veterans see continual improvements in the way they are dealt with, as they should under the armed forces covenant. It is possible to make positive changes, as those of us who have been campaigning for fair treatment for veterans with mesothelioma perceive from the Minister’s recent comments. However, it is an indictment of the antiquated procedures of this place that the armed forces covenant report, which is published annually—this is its fourth year—has never been debated in the House until now. I am sure that it would not be on the agenda if it were not for the creation of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant. It is positive that the all-party group, of which I am pleased to be a member, has obtained the debate, through the Backbench Business Committee. I wholeheartedly commend the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) on her initiative on moving things forward.
The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made a useful point about using the report as an opportunity on which to build year by year. There will always be more to do, but it is clear that the report endorses the pioneering work of the Scottish Government to support our armed forces personnel and veterans. That is a positive place from which to move forward and continue to strive for the best for those who serve. I am hopeful that, in the spirit of sharing good practice in all directions for positive ends, the UK Government will take into account the work being done in Scotland, which is pioneering. For instance, in Scotland, we have the UK’s first veterans commissioner, Eric Fraser. That is an important role, which allows us to develop our capacity in the key areas of concern to veterans. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) spoke passionately about veterans’ needs and interests, and I think that we need to consider that role thoroughly.
The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments have contributed to the annual report and their co-operation is valuable, particularly at a time when, as the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Plymouth, Moor View noted, our service personnel are engaged in so many challenging duties, and in increasingly complex modern warfare. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire rightly pointed out that the covenant deals with a huge range of aspects of military and veterans’ issues. For example, we may usefully ask further questions about concerns that healthcare may not be keeping up to speed with mental health needs. What support is given to Royal Navy personnel currently operating in the Mediterranean who daily see young children and their parents drown in a desperate search for a safer life? That must be incredibly distressing, and it is our duty to consider the wellbeing of our forces as they go about that vital humanitarian task.
A further concern that I have expressed in this Chamber before is the level of knowledge and support provided to care for the mental wellbeing of those who are deployed as drone operators. IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch peace organisation, produced a paper discussing the psychological impact on drone operators. It raised concern about “psychological numbing”. The authors note emotional and stress impacts on the operators
“when they see and hear their friends come under fire or when they can see (often in detail) the effect of their own actions”.
It is a very challenging role that we ask those members of the forces to undertake, and it is our responsibility to assess the impact upon them of what they do and see, so that we can provide appropriate support.
It is a matter of concern that last year’s annual report on the military covenant included a commitment to the publication of a report on the causes of deaths among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but that that has been delayed because of “unforeseen resource issues” and is now due for publication later this year. I hope that the UK Government will not let that slide, because it is important in allowing us to establish and deliver specific support, which those veterans desperately need.
The most recent report revealed a steady increase in assessments for mental disorders from 1.8% of UK armed forces personnel in 2007-08 to 2.9% in 2014-15, so there is clearly an urgent need to assess the impact of modern warfare on our service personnel. In contributing to the report, the Royal British Legion also pointed out that there is a need for
“investment in research on ‘what works’ in treating veterans with Gulf War illness”.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who commended the fantastic work of the charities that work with our armed forces and veterans. They certainly deserve our thanks and support, and we should look out for areas in which we can help them and make a difference.
The Scottish Government are working very hard to support our armed forces personnel and veterans, and to work with charities, for example through state-of-the-art healthcare facilities and programmes such as the Scottish care information gateway, where the installation of hardware to ensure that military health centres have access to the same system as any Scottish GP is now complete. Also, in partnership with NHS Scotland and Combat Stress, the Scottish Government recently renewed funding for the provision of specialist mental health services for veterans resident in Scotland at the Combat Stress facility, Hollybush House, in Ayr.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) raised the issue of prosthetics. Scotland provides a state-of-the-art national specialist prosthetics service. The unit is working well through a single multidisciplinary team approach across two specialist centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with links to all the other limb-fitting centres in the country.
I completely agree with the comments by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Marcus Fysh) about the vital importance of families and of the education of service personnel’s children. In Scotland we have made sure that education is at the heart of our support for armed forces personnel, including those who want to make the transition back to civilian life. We are providing support to forces families to allow them to do that. Clearly, Scotland’s overwhelming contribution to supporting education for service personnel families and veterans is their entitlement to free higher education and the fact that they benefit from our scrapping of tuition fees.
As the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) noted, all 32 local authorities in Scotland now have a nominated education officer for armed forces families, and Education Scotland is working with the national transitions officer. They have produced learning resources to support those working with service children. Education Scotland also works closely with SkillForce in Scotland, a charity that draws on the skills of ex-forces personnel to inspire young people. It is also working with the combined cadet force, alongside schools, to deliver parts of the Curriculum for Excellence as part of the cadet experience programme. It is therefore important to consider Scotland’s wide development of education facilities for service personnel, and to include that in the UK Government’s forthcoming University of Winchester project report, which is aimed at improving the understanding of factors that affect the progress of children from service families.
The Scottish Government’s progressive attitude to housing—a topic that several hon. Members have mentioned—has benefited veterans. The SNP has scrapped Margaret Thatcher’s damaging right-to-buy policy, which was hampering the housing stock and restricting local authorities’ ability to provide social housing. If we had built at English rates since 2007 we would have 42,000 fewer homes than we do. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 issues guidance to encourage social landlords to give fair and sympathetic consideration to applicants leaving the armed forces, something that is important for families at that time of great change. The SNP Scottish Government have also allocated £80 million to their Open Market shared equity scheme in 2015-16, promoted to members of the armed forces, and they continue to work in partnership with the veterans charity the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association to build 38 homes across six local authority areas to support physically and psychologically impaired veterans.
Local authorities can be at the forefront of good practice. In my local area, Jane Duncan, the East Renfrewshire Council veterans’ champion, is, with her team, making a significant difference to people’s lives in practical ways. The hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned the importance of shared work, and she would be interested to know that that team works and shares practice across three local authorities, to very positive ends.
In September 2015, military service campaigners welcomed confirmation by the Scottish Government that changes are being introduced that will make fatal accident inquiries mandatory for cases involving service personnel. Coroners’ inquests are currently mandatory in England and Wales, but FAIs are at the discretion of the Lord Advocate in Scotland. Cases such as the recent fatal collision of two RAF Tornado jets above the Moray Firth, for instance, did not result in a fatal accident inquiry.
Additionally, the recent Armed Forces Bill has considered in depth the issue of sexual assault in relation to service personnel. A number of amendments were tabled to the Bill to improve the recording of those incidents and the structure of discipline arrangements. It is important for all concerned to increase efforts to deal with sexual assaults in the services.
In their contribution to the report on the armed forces covenant, the Confederation of Service Charities, the War Widows Association and Professor Sir Hew Strachan said:
“We observed last year that there would be merit in formally reviewing the initiatives taken by the devolved administrations with a view to identifying best practice which might be embraced more widely across the UK.”
That is important for future policy development. The report notes that,
“the Armed Forces community should have the same access to benefits as any UK citizen”.
Unfortunately, that means inequality just as it does for the rest of society suffering from the Chancellor’s iniquitous benefit cuts. Our armed forces and veterans deserve our support and respect. However, that respect is missing in the removal of commitment bonuses and accelerated incremental progression, which were important in encouraging retention and upskilling. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of pounds in extra spending have been earmarked for the spiralling costs of Trident replacement.
It is encouraging, however, that following calls from my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), the Prime Minister has vowed to examine pensions for armed forces widows. When he raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions on 4 November at column 961, my right hon. Friend pointed out that many service widows continue to be deprived of their forces pensions if there is a change in their personal circumstances, and that that is a clear breach in the spirit of the military covenant. I hope that the Prime Minister will see fit to make progress on that.
In 2016 the UK Government are launching the new armed forces covenant brand. I think we would all agree that we support engagement with our communities in support of our service personnel and veterans, but to conclude on the note I started on, that cannot just be a matter of words. We need to back up our fine sentiments with real and continued progress. We rely on our service personnel to do the hardest and most dangerous jobs there are, and we must support them in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Governments ask a lot of those who serve in our armed forces, so we need to ensure that both regulars and reserves, and their families, are well served by Government. It is therefore vital that the Government respond to their needs. I welcome the fourth report on the armed forces covenant, which Labour was so proud to instigate when in government, and I welcome today’s debate, called for by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). The armed forces covenant is on a journey and is constantly in development. It is right on such occasions that we take stock of where we have come from and consider where we can travel to.
Before I respond to the debate, I want to pay tribute to the work of our armed forces, not least this Christmas when they played a vital role at home in supporting flooded communities. I can give testament to the excellent service they provided in my constituency of York Central through the height of the floods. I thank Brigadier Gerald Strickland, commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade, for his leadership and also York’s local signal regiment. Many men and women are also serving in the most dangerous parts of the world, and we pay tribute to their professionalism and skill as they serve their country.
Ensuring that the families of personnel are supported with good services, from housing to health, is one of their greatest concerns when serving overseas. We have all heard stories from personnel about how, before taking part in operations, they are concerned more about whether the shower at home has been fixed than about the dangerous, high-risk situations they are about to face. As we debate the armed covenant and as we look forward, we must ensure that we focus on our service personnel’s peace of mind and ensure that they can be focused in times of duty because their families are supported at home. From spending time with service personnel, with their families and with many charitable organisations, including the services families federations, we know that more needs to be done to ensure that both regulars and reserves receive the very best support.
The armed forces covenant is a mechanism to ensure that no detriment is suffered by our service personnel, but we have also heard in today’s debate about whether we should take the opportunity to champion their needs. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) mentioned the scope of the covenant and whether it should be increased, bringing in interpreters, contractors and those who have come from overseas to serve in the British forces, so that we can work out how best to honour their service.
The armed forces covenant is a covenant for four nations. We heard about best practice in Wales, including representation on all health boards, bringing in awareness of the needs of service personnel, and the mental health self-referral system for victims of PTSD. At a time when so many people have ongoing mental health needs, it is important that we take that into account. We also heard about some of the challenges raised so articulately by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), including ensuring that the covenant is applied without representation on the reference group. We all want the hon. Gentleman to have as much support as possible so that he is able to further the covenant in Northern Ireland. Speaking of best practice, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) mentioned the work being done in Scotland with the first Scottish Veterans Commissioner and some of the specialist services in mental health, prosthetic care, education and housing.
Let me turn to healthcare, specifically mesothelioma, which is a pressing issue, as many with the disease may not have long to live. Labour tabled an amendment to the current Armed Forces Bill to ensure that compensation for those with the disease matches what all other civilians receive. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to that, and I would welcome an update ahead of the Bill’s Third Reading next week on the progress made.
The covenant report rightly highlights the investment in specific services, from audiology to wheelchair provision, but one of the challenges faced by charitable and specialist organisations when providing healthcare is navigating the NHS, which has become far more complicated since the reorganisation following the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Instead of trying to engage in dialogue with over 200 clinical commissioning groups, there must be a smarter way for specialist services to deal with the NHS. I therefore ask the Minister to consider whether NHS England could be the focal point for organisations that are trying to provide such services. Many organisations, whether they deal with physical or mental health, have said that they are having multiple conversations, and it would be helpful if we could find a smoother way.
Continued reports of expedient access to treatment—which we have heard a lot about today—are also an important part of the challenge. We have received reports that people are waiting, whether for a transfer from one service to another due to relocation or just on waiting lists. We must ensure that dealing with the needs of both veterans and serving personnel, and their families, is expedited. It would be helpful to get more reports on the waits that people are experiencing in prosthetic care, wheelchair adaptation and access to mental health services, which can vary across the country. The current waits are unacceptable and can make situations worse. If someone receives an injury, they should be prioritised, not only for the duration of their service but for life, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) highlighted in his contribution. What mechanisms are in place for monitoring veterans’ waiting times and what more is being done to help them to access services?
The Minister has done much to focus on mental health, and Combat Stress is playing a vital role in providing information and crucial research for better understanding of mental health needs and how to address them. Key to that is securing good tracking of veterans, which is a real challenge. What progress has been made in tracking those who have left the services—for example, by maintaining a database of their information to allow for continued communication?
The hon. Lady has been talking a great deal of sense—up until now. I take slight issue with her on the notion of a database. So many bureaucrats love to come up with databases, but we are potentially talking about many millions of people who are constantly changing their way of life, address and everything else. Trying to keep any kind of updated central database is therefore virtually impossible. It would be much better to rely on regimental and local support services to keep track of the people from their own units.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but tracking veterans and providing a continuum of service to those who have served is a real issue about which I have spoken to many organisations. I am not saying that the mechanism for doing so has to be at a governmental level—it could be regimental—but it is important for data access, research, and monitoring and overseeing the welfare of former personnel. Too many are slipping through the net, often because of constant changes of address due to their having no fixed abode or having to change locations. It is really important that, as part of our duty of care, we are on top of who they are and where they live.
Much needs to be done to support the mental health of service personnel, as has been highlighted today. We are asking for all serving and former members of the armed forces and their families to have better access to mental health assessments and services. The health service, in particular for mental health, is challenged at the moment, as we know from our constituencies, whether in delivery, capacity or prioritisation. Further investment is important, in particular in personnel.
We cannot depend on an individual presenting themselves for support, because that is often late in the day, when further treatment is needed and further damage has already happened because of the delay. We are changing attitudes to mental health culturally, with better understanding coming more to the fore, but it is vital to take a more proactive approach towards mental health, moving upstream with it and ensuring that the needs of service personnel and their families are seen as a priority. We should provide the opportunity for assessment continuously, because early intervention can make such a radical difference to outcomes.
The public health agenda, although not mentioned in the report, should be a focus of Government attention. Alcohol use in the armed forces is a major concern and many veterans experience difficulties with substance abuse, so far more needs to be done to address public health concerns. Will the Minister develop a public health strategy for the armed forces to focus on the main pillars of public health? I was heartened to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said about the free swimming initiative in her constituency, but a public health strategy right across the services would be helpful, because so many people would benefit. Prevention of poor health is vital, and with the right investment we can save lives. Again, it is time to move upstream and to be proactive about the health agenda.
Much is being done on education, as the report highlights. The itinerant nature of work in the armed forces, however, has an impact on young lives. Moving families from base to base has consequences. In discussion with service personnel, I have found that many appreciate the benefits of their itinerant work and enjoy living in different communities, but many families find it disruptive, not least for their children’s education. One solution is highlighted in the report, but it is also important to think about other opportunities for families to have stability in a community.
Many service personnel have asked me—and I ask the Minister—whether it is necessary for their work to be as itinerant as it is currently. Can more stability be provided, so that families stay far longer on one base? If so, children could have greater stability in their education and social networks, and spouses and partners could have greater stability of employment. Education is a lifelong issue and something on which the armed forces are very focused. Beyond the plans in the report, will the Minister also look at increasing opportunities for spouses and partners to engage in lifelong educational opportunities? They give so much to support those in the services and their children, but they should also be given a greater opportunity to develop their own careers. The itinerant nature of the forces militates against career opportunities for the wider family.
Transition issues are also vital. Many leave the services and find that their plan for the future fails, so they might need to revisit their opportunities for an exit or transition strategy. I am therefore asking for continuous access to educational opportunities for veterans, so that even if their plans go wrong, they can come back to get back on course. We want those transitional opportunities to be seen as longer term.
Many points have already been made about housing, but there are so many service personnel who want security for a home. Increasing demand for home ownership has been addressed with the Help to Buy scheme, which we welcome, but for some it is still inaccessible because of the level of income necessary or because of priorities at their stage of life. There are equity share schemes, but will the Minister also consider a rent-to-buy scheme? That is very much part of Labour’s wider housing agenda, but I suggest it as another option in this housing portfolio.
The maintenance of service housing has been raised with me on a number of occasions. Companies have sometimes not been as good at fulfilling their contracts as perhaps they should have. What mechanisms are in place to monitor such contracts to ensure that they are fulfilled and that work is carried out in a timely way? Government need to provide scrutiny of the process, because so many personnel are concerned about what is happening at home when they are away.
I want to touch on the corporate covenant and then the community covenant. Engagement with the corporate covenant has increased. Seven hundred companies are now signed up, so the momentum is picking up, but that number is quite small in the scale of things. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also made that point, but engagement with the corporate covenant cannot be seen as tokenism either. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View was right to say that it must go beyond that and have real meaning.
In addition, all commercial companies that the Ministry of Defence procures from should be obliged to sign up to the corporate covenant under a mandatory social clause in MOD contracts. If a company is to gain from the MOD, it should also make a commitment to the services through the corporate covenant. I have been given examples of companies employing people working on MOD contracts that have not served reservists well on their return to the company. I would like the Minister to look at that. We believe a social clause would strengthen relationships and understanding of service personnel and bring greater synergy between service-provision companies and the armed forces. We think it should be extended to subcontractors, too.
The community covenant has received support from all local authorities, although I note the exception in Northern Ireland and hope for progress there. The vague nature of the relationship needs to be developed. I note the review due in March, which will be vital to assess the covenant’s effectiveness. On top of that, sharing best practice among local authorities and promoting greater dialogue between them could place the covenant on a stronger footing. That is what we want to see, so that a real community of people oversee the covenant in the future.
The report emphasises the work that the Government have done with veterans who end up in the criminal justice system. It highlights how the needs of veterans appear to be akin to those of the general population, yet we know that the exposure to trauma and other trigger factors can be significantly different. We would therefore like services for veterans to be more proactive in supporting vulnerable veterans who have additional needs by providing for relevant early interventions to assist with managing the challenges in their lives, whether those are mental health issues, substance and alcohol-related issues, or issues relating to their conduct and behaviour.
That point also holds true for conduct within the family home. Many who serve in the armed forces can experience or be at risk of experiencing challenges in their relationships, and tragically that leads on occasions to domestic incidents. Instead of taking a reactive approach to such incidents, a proactive support mechanism could benefit families and would enable greater recognition of the risks that can arise and more support to be provided at an early stage.
Finally, I want to turn to advocacy. While we very much welcome the increased role of the armed forces ombudsman—that is really important—we know that many still do not raise concerns that occur as a result of their duty. I would therefore like to know how the Minister sees the advocacy framework developing in the future. We have heard clearly from the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and for Tonbridge and Malling about the changing nature of the challenges facing service personnel after their duty. It is therefore important to understand the advocacy support available to individuals now and in the future to take forward issues, from a first instance of bullying through to serious accusations about the situations they have dealt with in combat.
To conclude, I have raised a number of issues to help take the covenant forward, but there has not been time to raise everything today. This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Following the example set by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), I remind the House, as I occasionally do, of my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), for Tonbridge and Malling and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) on securing this debate to discuss the armed forces covenant annual report 2015. I thank hon. Members for the valuable contributions made, to which I shall return shortly. Some hon. Members raised constituency casework and I simply ask them to write to me on that, as I will then deal with those cases rather than attempt to deal with them in the debate.
I am sure I am on safe ground when I say that we all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude and a moral obligation to all members of the armed forces, wherever they are in the United Kingdom, both past and present. It is for that reason that in 2011 the Government enshrined its commitment to the armed forces covenant in law. With that came the commitment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), the then Defence Secretary, to report annually to Parliament about progress on upholding the covenant principles. As we have heard, the armed forces covenant has two main principles.
There probably is an argument for that, but my hon. Friend will be as aware as I am that the previous Government made the proactive move to change the nature and structure of debates in this place by allowing much greater flexibly for Back Benchers to dictate what should be discussed. However, in so doing, that equally restricted the amount of time for the Government to deliver their business. It is therefore down to the will of Parliament to have such debates and today is a fine example of that genuine need and will. Therefore, on balance I am fairly content with the situation, because that Government gave Back Benchers greater flexibility, which is something that previous Governments did not. That is my view—I hope that is clear.
The principles are: the armed forces community should not face disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services; and special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and bereaved. The armed forces covenant annual report 2015 is the definitive document of what we have done to uphold those principles and is the fourth such report. It sets out what we have achieved, but it is also an opportunity to explain our priorities for the coming year. Let me be clear that it is certainly not an opportunity for us to rest on our laurels; it is an annual report of the continuing efforts to strive to improve on the military covenant. I view it simply as a starting point for further progress.
I will say a few words on contributions to the report and the implementation of the covenant. Delivering the covenant is a national responsibility involving the whole of Government, local authorities, industry, service charities and of course the public, who provide vital support and recognition for our armed forces. It is only right that I pay tribute to the representatives from all of those groups who have helped meet the commitments in the armed forces covenant in the last year. I genuinely thank them all. However, I would particularly like to recognise and thank those charities who work so tirelessly in support of our armed forces. Their efforts are indicative of the whole nation’s support for our armed forces community.
Our priority this year was to tackle the areas where the armed forces felt most disadvantaged: family healthcare; children’s education; spousal employment; housing and local services; and commercial support. The report sets out the measures we have taken to address concerns in those areas.
A common theme in contributions and perhaps that which hon. Members focused on the most was the relationship with the national health service and access to healthcare. Indeed, I will happily say that that is the area on which I have spent most of my time. I am delighted to say that I now meet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), on at least a quarterly basis to discuss areas where we can work together on that. Of course, the national health service in England and in the devolved parts of the UK is responsible for delivering healthcare to veterans, but equally the MOD has a duty to engage constantly.
To some extent we are asking whether we have proper buy-in. I think that we do, certainly to the extent that we have managed to embed the covenant’s principles into the NHS’s constitution in England. That positive step will hopefully ensure that veterans and their families are not disadvantaged in accessing health services where they live. It remains the case that veterans should receive priority treatment, subject to the clinical needs of others, relating to a condition resulting from their service in the armed forces. I can only say again that if any hon. Member has evidence that that is not happening, I encourage them to get in contact, because I would like to hear from them.
A couple of other issues relating to health were raised. With regards to osseointegration, I am pleased that through close collaboration with Blesma we have now moved to establish a pathway for veterans who can now go back to Headley Court. That is a positive step and I look forward to seeing how that develops over the coming months and years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who opened the debate, referred to updating electronic records. While I am pleased that since, I think, 2013 the armed forces have had an electronic record system, we are seeking to upgrade that system to allow an easier transfer of those records to the national health service. As part of that process, veterans will effectively be flagged so that they are easily identifiable. I cannot give her an exact timetable as to when that work will be complete—we all understand that Governments have faced challenges in the past on electronic systems—but I understand that work is progressing well, so I hope that we will not have to wait too long for that.
Equally, mental health was raised by several hon. Members. That is an area of particular interest to me: the first charity I visited when I became the Veterans Minister was Combat Stress. While there is some debate, there does not seem to be any particular evidence that veterans or members of the armed forces suffer a higher rate of mental health problems than the general population. However, we recognise that that is an issue and, where mental health problems do occur, I am determined that the highest standard of support should be made available. Indeed, it is.
To that end, I am delighted that we have implemented every recommendation of the “Fighting Fit” report, written by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). In addition, more than £13 million from LIBOR funds has been awarded to programmes supporting mental health in the armed forces community. That is an area I intend to continue to focus on and on which I would like progress to continue to be made, because I recognise its importance for colleagues across the House.
On children’s education, we have amended the school admissions code to prioritise service children and service families, so that they can now apply for and be allocated school places before they move to the area. That positive step is helping to reduce the effect of short-notice deployments on children’s education.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised the issue of spousal employment. She will be delighted to hear that we have launched a two-year trial to give service spouses additional employment training and support. Indeed, I visited one such trial in Cyprus recently and was very impressed. There are now also dedicated armed forces champions in every jobcentre region.
On commercial disadvantage, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, he was slightly dismissive of our recent progress in getting the four main mobile phone providers to agree that service personnel and their families can pause their contracts when posted overseas. I was very much involved in the process to get that agreement, and it did not seem like a minor step. I am delighted that we are now in this position and can only thank the providers for their support. These small steps, when taken slowly and added together, provide the progress we all need. I know it does not simply stop here; we need to continue to improve the support we offer, and I am determined to do so.
The annual report includes unedited comments from key representatives of the armed forces charities sector and the three service families federations, which I meet on a regular basis; I enjoy that, and it is a valuable experience. That ensures the report is accurate and gives a clear indication of where those groups think further action is required. Ministerial colleagues are due to meet with representatives from those groups next week, to discuss their feedback. This is a cross-government effort.
I have listened intently to the points raised today and hope to demonstrate to colleagues that their points will be taken into consideration as we move forward. To that end, I would like to update Members on our priorities for next year. Improving delivery of the community covenant will be key. While I do not favour legislative targets, we have committed to review delivery in order to identify best practice and robustly promote that across local authorities.
Recognising the importance of independence in the review, we are collaborating closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association and the charitable sector to meet our shared objectives. I addressed local authorities at the community covenant conference in November, and I will continue to work with the chair of the LGA, Lord Porter, to ensure that local authorities understand their covenant commitments and are committed to improving the support they offer their local armed forces community. Equally, as Members of Parliament, we have a responsibility to ensure that local authorities in our constituencies are doing their bit.
To respond to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who is no longer in her place, I understand that many local authorities publish their reports online and help to share their best practice. I certainly encourage all local authorities to do that. I intend to speak at next year’s LGA conference in order to do just that and to raise many of the points that Members have raised today.
I will move on to Northern Ireland—the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) looked up when I said that. I was impressed by and enjoyed listening to his very moving speech. Delivery of the covenant extends, of course, to the whole of the United Kingdom. The annual report includes input from the Welsh and Scottish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. It is important that we continue to work together to ensure there is universal support for the armed forces wherever they work and live, and that must extend to the whole of the United Kingdom.
I have listened to the concerns regarding delivery of the covenant in Northern Ireland. I was delighted that two local authorities in Northern Ireland signed a community covenant last year. That is clearly a big step forward, but we need to ensure that support extends across the region. In 2013, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs assessed that over 93% of covenant measures applied in Northern Ireland. It is sensible that in 2016 we update our assessment of how the covenant is being delivered in Northern Ireland and look at the areas where we could do more. That will be a priority. However, I do not believe Northern Ireland should be treated any differently to Scotland, Wales and England; our focus must be on improving delivery for all. To that end, I intend to visit Northern Ireland shortly to see what more I can do.
I have regular meetings and discussions with the hon. Member for South Antrim, who is a dear friend, colleague and veteran—I was going to say he is a fellow veteran, but I am still serving—of service in the Province. I am equally pleased to see on the Order Paper the Armed Forces Covenant (Implementation) (United Kingdom) Bill—the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling—which highlights that we need to make progress on the application of the covenant in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased that there are now 785 corporate covenant signatories. Next week, the Defence Secretary will present awards to 16 employee recognition scheme gold award winners, recognising the very best support for our armed forces. We will continue to tackle the key areas of commercial disadvantage and look at how the finance and insurance sector can do more to support the armed forces community and tackle the effects of overseas postings. I expect to announce new commitments later this month.
We must also continue to build on our work to support employment opportunities for reserves, veterans and spouses. The MOD has set up a relationship management team to engage with employers, which has not only encouraged an increase in the rate of new signings but, crucially, enabled us to work with existing signatories to deepen and enhance their pledges.
I hear the call from the hon. Member for York Central to look at effectively forcing, through contracts, companies that deal with the MOD to sign up to the corporate covenant or, indeed, to employ reservists. I am happy to be corrected, but I fear she may be unintentionally making an argument for leaving the EU, because I believe what she calls for is not possible under European procurement rules. I am happy to check that.
Without prolonging the debate on the issue, I am happy to commit to the hon. Lady to have a look at that, which I hope is reasonable.
It would be remiss, given this opportunity, not to reiterate this Government’s commitment, as set out in our manifesto, to improve the support we offer to military families. I am pleased to say that we will shortly publish the first families strategy, setting out a comprehensive programme of activity to ensure that military families receive the support and help they need. The strategy has been drafted in consultation with the three service families federations to ensure it truly reflects the needs of 21st-century military families. This year, we will deliver £20 million of investment in childcare infrastructure for military families, but we must also ensure that the new spousal employment programme is meeting its stated aims and objectives, and I have mentioned the two trials that are in place.
Members will be aware that the Government have committed to a £10 million annual fund in perpetuity to support delivery of the covenant. Several Members mentioned accommodation. I recognise concerns about accommodation for our armed forces community. We have allocated £85.5 million to help more than 5,600 personnel to buy or improve their home through the Forces Help to Buy scheme, and I am pleased that the Defence Secretary wants to double that number to 10,000 by this October. The Government have committed that from 2016, no service family in the UK will be allocated service accommodation that does not meet the decent homes standard. I have heard the calls from several hon. Members to work more closely with and improve the MOD’s relationship with local authorities when it comes to supporting families to get into local authority housing. I should point out, however, that we already have the MOD referrals scheme, which assists service leaders.
Looking forward, although I am not in a position today to give details about the future accommodation model that will be proposed for our armed forces, I hope to be able to do so in future. The model is an attempt to tackle issues related to encouraging and helping families to get into a home of their own.
Equally, I mention the Army basing scheme and the broader footprint strategy, part of which is to try and create greater stability for our armed forces, so that we do not see quite so much movement. Only yesterday, I visited 26 Engineer Regiment down in Wiltshire, where as an example, around Salisbury plain, the three armoured engineer regiments will now be pretty closely collocated. Those armoured engineers are likely to be posted between the three regiments but very much in the same part of the country, giving greater stability for families and spouses.
To touch on veterans—I realise I am going on—support for our veterans is an issue close to the heart of many, as shown by the recent publication by King’s College London on creating a sustainable model for veterans’ care in the United Kingdom post-2015. I am familiar with the proposals in that paper and congratulate all those involved in producing it. It is an interesting document that adds great things to the debate. I have asked my officials to attend an event on 12 January to discuss it and the evidence basis for it, and I look forward to engaging fully after that with the authors, to see how we can move forward and work together.
The Government have confirmed that funding for the nine enhanced prosthetic centres for veterans will continue. We have also allocated £10 million to the Royal British Legion to launch a veterans’ hearing fund and £3 million to help veterans access high-specification wheelchairs.
Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling in a very powerful speech, raised other issues that are perhaps summed up as “lawfare”. The Conservative party committed at the last general election to deal with this issue. A lot of work has been going on in the MOD over recent months to try and move that forward. I am not in a position right now to give further details, but that is being led by the Minister for the Armed Forces and I am sure that in due course, she will come to the House to address that.
On interpreters, I share my hon. Friend’s concern, having worked with them in Afghanistan. I have looked into the matter. I think the MOD has a very positive programme at the moment. There are different elements, partly about helping to improve security for families, about potentially relocating families within country, and ultimately, if necessary, about relocation to the UK. The programme that the MOD is pursuing at the moment is a good one.
Prisons were mentioned and I recognise that there are veterans in prison. I do not think the number is disproportionate, but they face unique challenges. To that end, I intend to visit HMP Grendon in Aylesbury next month and I will look at some of the work being done there to support our veterans.
I believe the covenant is working, but we need to make it clearer and easier for members of the armed forces community to access the available support. We know that delivery of the covenant is not uniform and we need a mechanism to identify and address localised problems. That will be our priority in 2016.
Although we have collectively achieved a great deal, much more remains to be done to ensure the covenant fulfils the nation’s promise to support the brave men and women who serve our country with honour and distinction. It is a long-term aim and the Government are committed to its long-term delivery.
I have endeavoured to answer all the points raised by hon. Members and if I have not done so, I will write to them in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report 2015.