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Armed Forces: Refusal of Goods and Services

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 28 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that members of the Armed Forces are not discriminated against in the provision of goods and services in the United Kingdom, particularly while wearing their uniform.

My Lords, our Armed Forces are currently deployed to the most demanding areas of conflict to maintain our national security. I am sure the whole House will agree that there is no place for those who, without good reason, refuse to provide goods and services to service personnel wearing uniform. Where incidences do occur, it is mostly a local issue. Commanding officers have been given guidance on suitable action to resolve matters, based on engagement with the local community.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will have seen examples in news reports of servicemen in uniform being refused service, either in a hotel or when buying something in a supermarket. Is it not the case that the MoD now encourages servicemen to wear uniform? Are there any other such cases of unsuitable behaviour and discrimination being reported up the command chain? In opposition the Conservative Party talked about increasing the strength of the military covenant. Would this be a suitable vehicle for dealing with such discrimination?

My Lords, we encourage servicemen and women to wear uniform as much as possible. I am aware of the small number of incidences that were reported in the media, including the two mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord. All of us will remember the scenes and demonstrations in Luton during the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment. Behaviour of this kind is unacceptable, but, in truth, it is rare, and the vast majority of the public support our Armed Forces enthusiastically. With regard to the noble and gallant Lord’s question on the covenant, we are looking carefully at the best way of ensuring that the covenant makes a real difference and that the Armed Forces community gets the respect and services it deserves. That means looking at all options, including legislation.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if we are going to support people who are putting their lives on the line for our country, we should give them all the support we possibly can? Will he clarify to the House exactly what the legal status is if somebody is refused a service just because they are wearing the uniform of one of Her Majesty’s services?

My Lords, legislation would not necessarily address the problem, but we encourage commanding officers to engage as much as possible with the local community to prevent the sort of incident that my noble friend mentioned.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that publicity, shame and possible boycotts might be the most effective remedy for this? If, as he says, the Government are considering legislation, what form might that legislation take?

My Lords, the Government recognise the need to do more to ensure that our Armed Forces, veterans and their families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve. We are working on the covenant at the moment. It will be a new tri-service document setting out key, enduring general principles which can be applied to particular problems as they arise. It will be accompanied by more detailed material on what the service community can expect to see delivered.

My Lords, is it true that one of the incidents referred to by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, might have taken place in a supermarket? Can my noble friend confirm that the leadership and boards of directors of all the major supermarkets in this country are quite clear in the instructions and advice that they give to all their employees? If that is not being done, I hope the Ministry of Defence will address it and make sure that they play their part in ensuring that the covenant is fully observed.

My Lords, while deeply regretting these incidents, could we not also celebrate those places where our Armed Forces are welcomed? As someone who lives near Thetford, in the middle of a battle area and near two Air Force bases, I often see our forces in our local stores, where they are very welcome. So we should regret this situation but also recognise that, across the country, many people rejoice in welcoming our Armed Forces.

My Lords, further to an answer that the noble Lord gave a few moments ago, is it suggested that the military covenant should now have legislative force? Should it become an Act? How does he see it in the future?

My Lords, we are looking at all kinds of options and hope to come forward with something either at the end of this year or early next year. We have not decided whether it will be part of the Armed Forces Bill, but we are looking at the issue.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is aware of the situation for veterans and soldiers in civilian clothes as regards accessing medical care, but this is an issue within the Government’s control. Why is it that many GPs and GP practices are not aware of the fast-track assistance for soldiers and veterans, and why is it that we can track cattle and animals throughout Europe but we do not know where our veterans are?

My Lords, the noble Viscount and I have had a number of discussions on this issue, and it is an issue that we take very seriously. I hope to come back to him with more positive news on it soon.