Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public authorities to deliver services in accordance with the armed forces covenant; and for connected purposes.
It is a great privilege to present this ten-minute rule Bill. I consider it a huge privilege to serve as Northern Ireland’s only voice on the Defence Committee, following the service of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We recognise the enormous sacrifice given not only during the Northern Ireland troubles and through Operation Banner, which remains our country’s longest continuous military deployment, but historically and to the present day, and we value the above average contribution that Northern Ireland makes to our country’s overall strength. Collectively, as a nation, we honour that commitment. Collectively, as a Parliament, we progressed the armed forces covenant, which nobly states:
“To those who proudly protect our nation, who do so with honour, courage, and commitment, the Armed Forces Covenant is the nation’s commitment to you.
It is a pledge that together we acknowledge and understand that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society they serve with their lives.”
I stand by those laudable and honourable words, but, regrettably, we cannot as parliamentarians say with confidence that the covenant runs smoothly and is always applied equally across the United Kingdom. That is the injustice that I hope my Bill will address. The statutory duty it proposes will extend throughout the United Kingdom. The covenant is intended to be a universal commitment, and the experience, care and compassion veterans receive should be the same, but their experience is far from universal.
For too long, the experience of Northern Ireland-based veterans has been substandard. Yes, we have devolution. Yes, we have particular issues that are alive in Northern Ireland that do not pervade other parts the country. But the covenant was not caveated in any way, and we should not caveat our resolve to ensure its full implementation.
I recall the first occasion when, during scrutiny of the covenant implementation report in the Defence Committee, I laid before the then Minister for Veterans correspondence received from the Health Minister in Northern Ireland at the time, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill. Responding to the needs of an individual veteran, she stated categorically that the armed forces covenant did not apply in Northern Ireland. In fact, she said that it did not apply “here”, because she could not bring herself to say “Northern Ireland”. She was wrong, but she was able to abuse her ministerial role to frustrate the honourable outworking of our nation’s commitment.
Such sectarian intransigence exists, and, depending on the allocation of ministerial office in Northern Ireland, it has the potential to block implementation in all the key operational departments. The shame of that action is matched only by the apparent unwillingness of this Parliament to meet it head-on. The sacrifice offered across our country is the same. The lives lost or injuries sustained do not confine themselves to respective parts of our nation, and nor should we confine ourselves in our response.
For two years, successive covenant implementation reports have highlighted the fact that armed forces champions have been appointed in each of Northern Ireland’s 11 local authorities. On the face of it that is great progress, but when we know that local authorities in Northern Ireland have no role or influence in housing, health—including mental health—or education, it amounts to nothing more than tokenism.
In the most recent covenant report, some space was given to the through-life support offered to our veterans community. I read with interest three pages about the great work being undertaken in England, a further page about the work undertaken in Scotland, and yet another about the work undertaken in Wales. There was not a single line about Northern Ireland. There was nothing: no encouraging progress, no hurdles to be overcome, no aspirations for the future.
When Border Force recruitment in Northern Ireland was suspended because one of the eligibility criteria was service in the armed forces, the tension between the covenant and equality legislation became all too apparent. There is a misguided belief that equality laws in Northern Ireland act as a barrier to providing for our veterans community. It would, of course, be hugely advantageous to amend section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to include veterans as a protected class, in line with the aims and aspirations of the covenant. More pronounced, however, is the embarrassing failure to mount any justification for the reasonable aims of the covenant, which is all that Border Force needed to do.
Rather than justifying the reasons why service in the armed forces was a sterling criterion, demonstrating key skills that would enhance an application from a veteran—which is what the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland sought—Border Force decided that it was better to remove veterans’ opportunity to serve their country once again. How dishonourable that was. Rather than advancing the cause of those applicants, Border Force pulled the rug from under them. They were prepared to defend our country in their armed service careers, and they were prepared to defend it again through service in Border Force, yet we in this Parliament did not manage to defend their future career prospects.
Given all the constraints, and the seemingly intractable unwillingness to overcome them, I must especially praise the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland, which seeks valiantly to serve our veteran population. I also pay tribute to the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment benevolent funds, which continue to support veterans and their families, from Omagh to St Patrick’s in Ballymena and from Thiepval to Palace Barracks in North Down at the edge of my constituency.
With its new veterans support officer, RFCA NI attempts to navigate the system in Northern Ireland and seeks to find subtle workarounds, but in doing so, it is unfolding the circumstances of scores of individuals who, unlike their mainland counterparts, have had no opportunity to avail themselves of the services that they require and expect and that we should provide. It is discovering a lack of resources and a lack of legislative support.
When I say that, I look at the Veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I know of his personal commitment, and I know how much he has engaged in matters that do not arise solely in Northern Ireland. The issues raised by the fact that the covenant is not running smoothly apply throughout the United Kingdom. In the Defence Committee, we are identifying distinct differences in mental health provision and other support services in Scotland, Wales and England.
I believe we must say that no longer should our veteran population in Northern Ireland—and in other parts of this United Kingdom—remain with one hand tied behind their back. We owe them more than that. I have focused my remarks on Northern Ireland, but I know only too well that the principle applies across our nation. We have the chance to change that. At the very least, let this parliamentary process—through my quest for a statutory duty to implement the covenant—honour those who so gallantly honoured us.
Question put and agreed to.
That Gavin Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Emma Little Pengelly, Dr Julian Lewis, Mrs Madeleine Moon, John Spellar, Leo Docherty, Mr Kevan Jones, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Ruth Smeeth and Jamie Stone present the Bill.
Gavin Robinson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March and to be printed (Bill 332).