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Armed Forces Covenant: Military Charities

Volume 688: debated on Monday 1 February 2021

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on strengthening the armed forces covenant; and if he will make a statement. (911597)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on strengthening the armed forces covenant; and if he will make a statement. (911604)

This Government are committed to strengthening the armed forces covenant with measures to further incorporate it into law introduced last week in the Armed Forces Bill. Service charities play an integral role for the armed forces community. We have regular dialogue, and they also provide observations on our progress each year in an unadulterated version of the covenant annual report.

I, too, send my best wishes to Captain Sir Tom Moore for a speedy recovery.

I have long been a supporter of the military covenant, and the local authorities in my constituency are among the first to adopt it, but the Minister will know that the director general of the Royal British Legion told the Committee considering the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill that the six-year longstop will breach the military covenant. Why does he think they say that?

I was Minister on that Bill Committee, and the person to whom the hon. Gentleman refers actually supports the legislation. It does not breach the armed forces covenant. We are clear that that legislation gives our soldiers more rights and protects them in a better manner for the intricacies of modern warfare. Those who continue to peddle untruths about that Bill are doing quite a serious disservice to those who need to be protected from vexatious claims when they serve this nation on operations.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that local authorities play an important role in implementing the national covenant. In Sheffield, extra priority is given to ex-servicemen when it comes to the right to social housing. There is also a wraparound service that includes employment and skills, and mental health. All that is overseen by a council-appointed ex-servicemen’s champion, Councillor Tony Damms, who works with local charities, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Sheffield and district ex-service associations; they all work closely together. I am sure that the Minister will agree that charities and the council working together in that way is a model for the implementation of the national covenant.

I pay tribute to Tony and to many like him across the country who work tirelessly in the endeavour of veterans’ care. I am clear that the future of veterans’ care is a blended model between statutory and voluntary provision, where there is a role for everybody, and we mark ourselves by the key questions: “How do you access that care? Does everyone leaving who needs it know where to turn?” Until we get there, we continue to need people such as Tony. It is a team effort, and we will get there in the end.

Part of the armed forces covenant is, of course, to look after war widows, including an estimated 265 who lost their war widow’s pension on cohabitation or remarriage and have not been able to benefit from the change in the law preventing that from happening in the future. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State personally have been fighting with the Treasury to find a way to settle this debt of honour. In the light of the latest knock-back, what further plans do Ministers have to try to make good their promise to look after those war widows, who have sacrificed so much?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on this issue. The Secretary of State has taken a personal lead and has recently written to Mary Moreland. As a result, the Department is currently considering how we can best support those represented through her War Widows Association, and, indeed, what that support might actually look like.

I have been speaking to a number of local authorities about their commitment to the armed forces covenant. We already know that many local authorities do a really great job of supporting service personnel, veterans and their families, but having the covenant in law will enhance those responsibilities. When there are more legal responsibilities, will Government funding to local authorities follow?

The Department is looking to issue in due course statutory guidance on how precisely these matters will be achieved. The key thing is that the legislation is very clear that it does not specify outcomes, but simply ensures that a set of principles is adhered to. That is what the armed forces covenant was always about; it was designed never for advantage, but to prevent disadvantage. That is what this Bill does. It is carefully calibrated to ensure that we raise the floor so that the experience for veterans, the serving community and their families is equal across the nation.