Motion to Consider
That the Grand Committee do consider the Armed Forces and Reserve Forces (Compensation Scheme) (Consequential Provisions: Primary Legislation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2013.
Relevant documents: 15th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
Noble Lords may recall that I led a debate on 15 October this year, introducing this legislation specifically for those seriously injured service and ex-service personnel resident in Northern Ireland who are entitled to an Armed Forces independence payment, or AFIP. This legislation provides access to additional benefits, schemes and services, known as passported benefits. The Motion was passed by the Committee but, due to a procedural error in the progress of the statutory instrument in the other place, the legislation must be debated again before it can come into force.
Although the AFIP has been available to seriously injured service and ex-service personnel resident in Northern Ireland, the legislative changes to provide access to passported benefits have not been implemented. A second statutory instrument, amending secondary legislation, will be in place shortly. Today’s debate gives Members a second opportunity to debate this legislation. It provides access to two minor but important legislative changes in respect of carer’s allowance and the Christmas bonus.
This legislative change will ensure that those who provide invaluable support to seriously injured members of the Armed Forces in receipt of AFIP have access to carer’s allowance in Northern Ireland from the Department for Social Development. Carer’s allowance is currently £59.75 per week. This change will make provision specifically for those who devote their lives to supporting our seriously injured people, providing some financial support for doing so. It is only right that a person caring for an AFIP recipient should have access to carer’s allowance. The provisions relating to the Christmas bonus will ensure that all recipients of AFIP automatically qualify for the tax-free, lump sum Christmas bonus of £10.
By putting in place the provisions to give AFIP recipients resident in Northern Ireland access to the additional benefits, schemes and services that are offered by other government departments, devolved Administrations and local authorities, the Government are giving them treatment equal to that offered to service personnel and veterans resident elsewhere in the UK. It is important that we address these issues, meeting the principles at the heart of the covenant across all Administrations for members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are seriously injured. I hope the Committee will therefore once again approve the order today.
My Lords, the Minister will know that my interest in these matters goes back to the passage of the Armed Forces Bill in 2011, when a number of amendments were discussed in relation to ensuring that the military covenant was applied universally throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland. One of the points made at that time was that many of the services that are required to be provided for soldiers, former soldiers and their families are devolved matters in different parts of the United Kingdom. The question then arose: how could the Secretary of State for Defence prepare and deliver a report to Parliament, given that he or she would not be in control of many of the services required in the regions? It was also based on the general principle that these services should be as universally available to eligible personnel throughout the UK as possible.
There are a couple of aspects to this. I understand the technical matters that the Minister has addressed, and the fact that the legislation has had to be reintroduced. However, I seek the Minister’s assurance on a couple of issues. First, the welfare issues are currently before the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have no doubt that amendments will be tabled in that Chamber. Whether they affect any of this is unclear, but sooner or later the Welfare Reform Bill will be passed in Stormont, and then we will see where that takes us. Any amendments may well involve a cost to the Northern Ireland Assembly from the block grant. I think people realise that is the case.
The issue that concerns me more than that is that the Minister is saying that the Government have received the consent of Northern Ireland Ministers from the relevant departments for these proposals. Does that mean that the Government will require a legislative consent Motion to come from the Stormont Government or the Assembly, or is there sufficient administrative flexibility for Ministers in Northern Ireland, on their own, to give the Minister and the department the assurances they seek?
The second point is one I made during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, and I know the Minister is aware of my concern. Although the fact—if it is the case—that he has the consent of Northern Ireland Ministers is welcome, Ministers in various departments will change from time to time. Therefore, the consent of Ministers cannot be guaranteed in the long term. What does the Ministry of Defence do in the event of a Minister refusing his or her consent? That was a point I made during the passage of the Bill. In the short term there is no problem; however, in the long term there may well be one.
I therefore seek an assurance from the Minister that the Government will take all necessary steps, legislatively if necessary, to ensure that the services provided to injured personnel and their families will be provided throughout the United Kingdom, even if there is opposition from the local Administrations. I fear that a pattern has developed whereby we are hiding behind the Sewel convention, to the extent that it is now regarded as a shibboleth. Is Parliament devolving powers or giving them away permanently to local Administrations? That is a big issue for devolution generally.
The specific issue before us is that currently the consent of Ministers in Belfast is required. I understand that. At the moment, it appears that that consent is being given, and I am glad about that, but in the long term it might not be. I say to the Minister that when the next Armed Forces Bill is introduced, which I gather will be around 2016, I would be willing to bring forward proposals to correct any difficulties that might arise because the ministerial team in Belfast had, by then, changed. The issue that concerns me could arise—we have seen it already with the National Crime Agency, where it is not yet resolved.
I feel very strongly about this issue. The House accepted, during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, that regardless of where they come from or live in the United Kingdom, the services provided to help former soldiers and service personnel who have served in the UK Armed Forces should be available as equally as possible. Nobody should suffer discrimination because they happen to come from a devolved region. This is Parliament’s responsibility, because the Armed Forces are an excepted matter under devolution. In my opinion, it will never be a devolved issue. Therefore, this Parliament has an overarching responsibility to see that these services are provided on an equitable basis, irrespective of where the recipient comes from. I seek the Minister’s assurances on all these matters.
My Lords, the Minister has reminded us that we debated this matter on 15 October when the order was agreed and we expressed our support for it. The Minister has explained why we have to approve the order again, and that is certainly not an issue on which I wish to dwell.
I have just a couple of brief points, since I do not intend to repeat what I said on 15 October. In responding to points I raised then, however, the Minister said that the number of,
“seriously injured service or ex-service personnel … covered by this order relating to Northern Ireland … is fewer than 20”.—[Official Report, 15/10/13; col. GC 213.]
I simply ask, since the order is not coming into effect on 28 October as was envisaged, whether anyone has lost out as a result, as the order itself indicates that it comes into force on the day after that on which it is made. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify what date that is likely to be, and whether anyone has lost out as a result of this apparent delay in bringing the order into effect for the reasons the Minister mentioned.
My Lords, I thank the two noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that all services and benefits should be universally available throughout the United Kingdom.
Five Ministers of State for Northern Ireland provided consent for these amendments to be made. The departments are the Department for Social Development, the Department of Justice, the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. No further Northern Ireland government approval is required for this SI, but the noble Lord asked me about a possible future situation where a Minister refused consent. I am afraid that I do not have an immediate answer with me, but I undertake to write to the noble Lord on this important point.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, the noble Lord asked me what impact the late implementation date would have on the access to a Christmas bonus of AFIP recipients in Northern Ireland. Although there is no legislative provision to make payment of a Christmas bonus to those individuals who have elected to receive AFIP—as the noble Lord said, there are fewer than 20 in Northern Ireland—payments have been made by the DWP to ensure that eligible seriously injured service personnel resident in Northern Ireland receive the same support as AFIP claimants in the rest of the UK and recipients of both the enhanced rates of personal independence payment, which include the Christmas bonus.
In summary, I restate the point I made when I opened this debate. The changes debated today are closely linked to the Government’s commitment to uphold the Armed Forces covenant. It is only right that we provide access to additional benefits, schemes and services to those most seriously injured, wherever they are resident in the United Kingdom. I believe that these changes will go some way to achieve this.