The 2016 covenant annual report clearly demonstrates the progress that has been made since the covenant was enshrined in law. Today, I am pleased to announce a new initiative by the main broadband providers: personnel posted to a location not covered by their current provider can now cancel their broadband without incurring any additional fees. I thank BT, EE, Plusnet, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media for their support.
Councillor McCarthy and Rochdale Council go above and beyond when it comes to delivering the armed forces covenant. This includes having a dedicated council officer—Caen Matthews, a former veteran himself—to ensure that those who fought for our country are properly looked after in our town. Will the Minister congratulate Rochdale Council on its success, and will he encourage other councils to follow suit?
I heartily congratulate all those at Rochdale Borough Council—and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman—and thank them for their efforts. They have introduced measures that make a real difference to the armed forces community, ranging from providing practical support to members of our ex-services community seeking social housing to the naming of streets in recognition of local armed forces heroes. I commend the council’s good example to colleagues across the country and wish it well with its continuing work in support of the covenant.
Some amazing work is undertaken by the British Legion and other charities in my constituency and across the UK, but the head of SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity, has recently warned that the
“Armed Forces Covenant lacks bite”.
Many local authorities seem to feel that complying with the covenant is an option rather than an obligation. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to reinforce the message of just how essential the covenant is?
I think that there is an acceptance across the House of just how important the covenant is, and I am delighted that every local authority in Great Britain and four in Northern Ireland—has now signed it. Last year, we sent out a survey to try to establish best practice, and we are now moving on to the next stage, in which we will look carefully at those local authorities and other organisations that are not doing what they said they would do, and encourage them to remedy that. Ultimately we could revoke the agreement with them, but I would like to think that we would never get to that stage.
Will the Minister say a bit more about the corporate covenant—the business element of the covenant through which many companies make contributions to help service families and personnel? There has been quite a lot of success in that area.
There has. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have now combined the community covenant and the corporate covenant into the armed forces covenant. I hope that some 1,500 businesses will have signed the covenant by later this week, and that is a testament to British business. It also illustrates the fact that this is a two-way deal, in that the skill sets that we give to our armed forces personnel will ultimately help our businesses as well.
Since its peak, the use of e-blueys has reduced by some 98%, meaning that an e-bluey can sometimes cost £17. The service will cease from 1 April, but all the money saved will be reinvested, and there is now nowhere overseas that does not have access to the internet. However, we are looking carefully at this to ensure that nobody will be disadvantaged when the new service is introduced.
During a recent sitting of the Defence Committee, I shared with the Minister correspondence from the then Health Minister for Northern Ireland, now the leader of Sinn Féin, who pointedly said:
“the Armed Forces Covenant is not in place here”.
What advice and guidance can the Minister give in the face of such intransigence?
We all understand that the armed forces covenant applies throughout the United Kingdom. I appreciate that there are specific challenges in Northern Ireland, and I have already said that I intend to make that a priority for this year. To that end, I shall be visiting Northern Ireland shortly.