Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I remind the House that there is an hour of debate. The right reverend Prelate has 10 minutes, my noble friend the Minister has 12 minutes and everybody else has two minutes. Once the Clock goes on to two minutes, the speaker will have had their time and should sit down and let the next speaker speak.
My Lords, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to ask this Question and open this debate on the impact of the Armed Forces covenant. It is a privilege because, despite my day job, opportunities to talk about good news do not occur as often as you might think, and a responsibility because it is clear that there is work to be done as service personnel and their families still suffer disadvantage and do not always receive the consideration that they need. I am delighted by the range of expertise and interest of those who will be contributing this evening, albeit very briefly given the substantial and encouraging interest in the debate, and by the Minister for the personal commitment he has shown to the covenant. I await the debate and his response with eagerness.
First, the good news: those on lowest incomes in the forces have seen their wages increase despite the public sector pay freeze. Many have benefited from changes in mortgage agreements and mobile phone and broadband contracts which no longer penalise them during deployments. The advances made in healthcare at Camp Bastion are now mirrored by specialist centres, particularly in Birmingham. Also, partly as a result of the excellent e-Learning for Healthcare module, there is increasing awareness in general practice of both the needs of service personnel and the special access to healthcare available to them.
Service pupil premium payments have enabled schools to fund projects which support the children of forces families. A superb example of this can be found a short distance from my own home in the diocese I serve. The Crofton Cabin was built with a £20,000 grant. It provides a space for children to Skype parents while they are overseas and specialist counselling to help with the stress of deployments. Home life has been improved for many through the £68 million spent on improving and upgrading accommodation, and 9,000 families have bought their own homes through the Help to Buy scheme. The covenant has helped to raise awareness in the business sector of the needs and opportunities presented by service personnel both as customers and as future employees.
The ripple effect of the covenant should not be underestimated. Only last month the Karimia mosque in Nottingham signed up and ushered in a wave of Muslim-owned businesses that are now contributing to supporting members of the military. By signing, that mosque is encouraging this young community to play its role in defending its country, and making clear how much it values those who serve. This appreciation is vital and much deserved, not just for work done overseas but for the invaluable assistance provided by service personnel during emergencies here—for instance, following the floods.
Where is change still needed and where should we look for further improvement? There have been undoubted improvements in surgical care and rehabilitation for physical injuries, but mental health care provision lags behind. It depends on a health service which has been underfunded in this area. Despite the Prime Minister’s welcome announcement today, mental health provision is strained at best and provision for military personnel is often less than adequate. Can the Minister give us reassurance on the way this essential provision can be better delivered? This applies with as much or greater force to reservists, who are increasingly important to the Armed Forces yet are scattered and less visible. Can the Minister reassure the House on the awareness of the Government as regards the special challenges of this remarkable group?
Mental health problems are known to put a strain on relationships, and it sadly remains the case that the divorce rate among military families is double that of the civilian world. However, it is likely that mental health is not the only reason for that, when the main reason cited by those leaving the forces is the impact of their job on family life. A crucial part of that is where you live. Jesus said:
“Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
He is therefore not my primary source of advice for what makes for good housing but, like the Armed Forces, the Church has a great deal of experience with housing its people and is aware of the impact of poor housing on morale. The Public Accounts Committee in the other place concluded that families have been let down by the inadequate performance of CarillonAmey. Accommodation remains by far the number one issue reported to the families federations, and service personnel will welcome reassurance from the Minister, if he is able to help today, about the Government’s appreciation of the concern about this and how it will be addressed.
Service personnel can also be disadvantaged when they leave. The variable interpretation of the Armed Forces community covenant scheme by local government means that ex-service personnel and their families are still sometimes faced with the hurdle of “local connection” to overcome before they are housed. There are examples of good practice but at best the situation is patchy. What encouragement can the Government and indeed the rest of us give to raise the level of local government understanding and action?
Family life is of course wider than the house you live in, and it is unfair that those seeking to adopt children, and those seeking to get their children into new schools, still face huge hurdles because of the special circumstances of service life. I hope the schools admission problem might be adequately addressed by the Children of Armed Services (Schools Admission) Bill, which is to be debated for the second time later this month in the House of Commons. Perhaps the Minister could indicate if the Government have sympathy and if they perhaps plan to reduce and remove these problems.
The principle of the covenant is that those who serve in the Armed Forces and their families should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. For that to be the case, there has to be a clear understanding of what is fair and achievable. Communication of these aims has been helped by an improved website, covenant champions and access to the gateway, but this is an ongoing task, not a once-only one. Both local government and business need to train new members of staff as well as reminding their existing staff about the key features of the covenant and its implications. We are talking here about a culture not of entitlement or advantage but of fairness and equity.
As I resume my place—within time—and await your Lordships’ speeches with anticipation, I remind the House that the covenant has admirably begun to redress injustice, unfairness and disadvantage. We all need to ensure that none of us fails to pay due respect to the men and women, with their families, who are prepared to lay down their lives in our protection.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for the debate today and his excellent introduction. As a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I am privileged to observe the work of our outstanding Armed Forces at first hand. We have a duty of care to those who serve and give so much, and to their families, and the Armed Forces covenant is an important national contract to address that.
Time is short and there are three issues that I want to raise. First, to be effective, the covenant needs to be widely recognised and understood, yet almost half of service personnel actually know nothing about the covenant, when they should be benefiting from its impact.
Does the covenant or its delivery need amending? I have heard that there is a perception by some on the ground that the covenant is tokenistic. Although it contains noble principles, does not the lack of penalties for failing to fulfil them make it toothless? I know that there are concerns about how effectively local authorities and companies that sign up to the covenant are delivering, so I ask my noble friend whether the covenant’s effectiveness has been studied and whether there has been any audit of delivery.
Lastly, do the Government do enough for military families? It is difficult to live on one salary today, and many wives are highly trained. However, regular moves mean that it is very difficult for them to continue in employment. The moves also impact on children, who have to either change school frequently or be sent to boarding school. As we have heard, housing is an issue. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents to the 2015 AFCAS survey felt that their family life was disadvantaged through their service, and it is far the biggest factor influencing decisions to leave the forces, at a time when we need to retain the best.
To conclude, the covenant is to be welcomed, but does it have proper accountability and could it be more effective to help both our serving personnel and their families?
My Lords, the military covenant embraces a principle of fair and just compensation for injury and death in service. Basic awards are currently made under the Armed Forces compensation scheme without proof of negligence on a tariff basis: the amounts awarded for a specific injury are laid down in the scheme. Claims for damages for negligence are therefore frequently brought against the MoD as an alternative. The claim, if successful, will attract general damages based on common law principles which will generally greatly exceed a tariff award, because a lifetime of losses will be considered. However, at present, the defence of combat immunity will defeat a negligence claim for injuries or death sustained in combat.
The Government announced, on 1 December last, a new policy in the spirit of the military covenant to introduce an enhanced compensation scheme which will provide the equivalent of common law damages for injury or death in the field of combat without proof of negligence. The proposals are out for consultation until 23 February. Claims where negligence has to be proved will be redundant. I very much welcome these proposals.
But what is combat? Should combat include deployments on secret missions; or peacekeeping operations, as in Bosnia; or against terrorism, as in Northern Ireland; or anywhere else where British forces are deployed against insurgents? I would argue that planning for specific military operations should stipulate a date or an event when the troops deployed should come within the scope of the new enhanced statutory compensation scheme. On that clear-cut basis, an individual serviceman and his family would have, in effect, an insurance against injury or death at the level of common law damages during the period of deployment in return for the loss of his rights to sue for negligence. Litigation would be greatly reduced.
The Minister has already agreed to participate in a seminar of the Association of Military Court Advocates, of which I am chairman, on the issues raised by the consultation, when I hope to pursue the concept. Further, having regard to experience I have had of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board when, until 1994, the equivalent of common law damages was awarded for criminal injuries, I also hope to address the problems of administering the new scheme. I look forward to a date and time when the seminar can be held within Parliament for all noble Lords to attend.
My Lords, my amendment, with government support, to the Armed Forces Bill in 2011, inserted the section in the 2006 Act which requires the annual covenant report. This section refers to removing,
“disadvantages arising for service people”,
“the principle that special provision … may be justified by the effects on such people”,
of their service. The Act requires the Secretary of State to have regard to those principles.
Earlier annual covenant reports made numerous references to disadvantages, but the recent report lays stress on treating people fairly. Fairness is a subjective and immeasurable concept, which bears too little relationship to dealing with or correcting a disadvantage; a disadvantage is more measurable. Morphing from disadvantage to fairness in the work of the covenant is confusing; it is agin the statute.
COBSEO and others in the recent report questioned a proposal to remove the service and medical members from the panel of the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Tribunal. In 2008, I tabled an annulment Motion to an affirmative SI because it threatened to disband the then War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Tribunal and transfer its work to a social entitlement chamber—a totally inappropriate chamber. Before the debate on the SI, a Written Ministerial Statement said:
“The Senior President of Tribunals … requires the continued use of service members on hearing panels within the war pensions and armed forces compensation chamber and maintains their present role without diminution or alteration. … A decision made at a hearing of an appeal in this chamber will normally be dealt with by a three member panel of one judge, one service member and one medical member”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/10/08; col. 51WS.]
The Government changed their mind and retained a separate chamber. I moved my annulment Motion but did not divide on it.
Similar tribunals in Scotland and Northern Ireland remain tripartite. It would be an immeasurable disadvantage to have dissimilar tribunals to judge claims. Will the Minister assure the House that the 2008 tripartite tribunal arrangement for England and Wales is to be continued by this Government without variation or diminution?
My Lords, our country is rightly proud of and grateful to our Armed Forces, both those serving and those retired, as well as their families, and I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing this debate to the House. First, it is not enough for us just to be proud and grateful; we need to give the covenant the attention that it deserves, and we have a moral obligation, at both a national and local level, to support these men and women and their families, to ensure that they are treated fairly and are not disadvantaged from serving their country. The covenant is there to do just that, yet it must not be seen as just an event, but rather an embedded way of how we do things.
In Wiltshire, we have a large military presence. I declare my interest as leader of the local authority. By 2020, there will be 19,000 Army personnel in the county, so it is perhaps easier for Wiltshire, as opposed to some other areas, to ensure their importance in our communities. For this reason, I believe that it is vital that all our policies as a local authority take account of the particular needs of the military community. For example, there are policies on areas such as: housing allocation; school admissions; the council’s human resources policies to encourage and support reservists; targeted fostering campaigns to encourage military families to consider fostering; working with the Army and local employers to support transition into work, ensuring that service leavers are well equipped with the skills necessary for civilian life when they leave the military. However, there is much more that we can do, even in a place such as Wiltshire. Interestingly, the biggest challenge is always the continued communication to ensure that the public, private and voluntary sectors understand the needs of the military community and that the military community understands what is available to it.
My concern is that in those areas with little clear military presence, it is often more difficult to identify veterans and families so that they get the same consideration. In such circumstances, this relies on the local authority community and the Local Government Association to have a really strong role in ensuring that there is an understanding across all local authorities of their role to deliver the promises stated in the military covenant and a dissemination of good practice in local authorities.
Part of the problem is data, particularly on the veterans; those data are very difficult to collect. In Wiltshire, we understand that 12% of our population are veterans, but I think that it could be higher. What are the Government’s latest views on the Royal British Legion’s campaign, Count Them In, a campaign to ask for a question in the 2021 national census about veterans’ status? This would be of enormous help to local authorities in understanding their communities better.
The covenant is working well in many places, but we must not be complacent. This document must not just be signed; there must be a challenge to ensure it is embedded in policy at both national and local level for our service men and women.
My Lords, I thank most sincerely the right reverend Prelate for this evening’s debate. It is a long time since we had one on the covenant and I very much welcome it.
The covenant says:
“The first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our Armed Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and, sometimes, suffering serious injury or death”.
It is not a bureaucratic document; it is a compact between the Government, on behalf of the nation—supported by local authorities, a lot of agencies and, indeed, companies who sign up—and our Armed Forces personnel. A substantial number of these personnel do not even know that the covenant exists, so this evening’s debate is terribly important. We have a big defence debate on Thursday, and our Armed Forces personnel are absolutely central to our nation’s defence.
I was chairman of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body for six years and I know that when you talk to our Armed Forces personnel about the covenant a lot of them just laugh. They do not know what you are talking about or, where they do know about it, they feel it is not being met. What they want to know is how their family is being looked after back at home while they are serving in an operation. Are they getting decent housing? That is central to the covenant.
I recognise that there has been a lot of progress, but there is an awful long way to go. It might be a good idea, in considering where we are, to actually ask the serving Armed Forces personnel themselves what they think about the covenant. Is it working? Is it successful? At the same time, we could ask the veterans as well. This might be a worthwhile thing to do, perhaps asking the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body to carry it out in its annual visits.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as a member of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, Northern Ireland, and as a trustee of the Somme Association. I fully concur with the view that the military covenant is a necessary and important support for serving personnel, veterans and their families. I firmly believe that we need to ensure that both the covenant and associated initiatives are effective vehicles for delivering on their important aims.
One important element of the covenant in Great Britain is the community dimension focused around local authorities, which are responsible for housing, health and education. However, there is a problem in Northern Ireland in that the local authorities do not possess any of these powers. Unfortunately, the political constraints in Northern Ireland remain an impediment for full implementation. However, it is welcome that Northern Ireland is set to secure a place on the covenant reference group and I am pleased that the work of the Veterans Support Committee in Northern Ireland is gaining traction. Its primary focus is to pragmatically deliver, in spite of the local constraints.
In conclusion, I would be grateful if, in his closing remarks, the Minister could give assurance that sufficient resources will be made available so that the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Committee can continue its good work and fully realise its aspirations.
My Lords, it is impossible to deliver a balanced discourse on this important subject in two minutes, so let me get off my chest what I believe are some grave injustices which are making a mockery of treating our former soldiers with fairness and respect. Take the case of a former soldier who fired at an armed terrorist,
“whilst bullets rained down in all directions”.
He either fired or waited until the IRA terrorist had killed the other soldiers on guard duty. That soldier received a “certificate of appreciation” from the GOC Northern Ireland—but now he has been questioned about committing possible murder in that attack, which happened in 1972. The soldier is aged 75 and is a Chelsea Pensioner. What in the name of God has happened to decency, justice, fairness and common sense when we are interrogating Chelsea Pensioners for doing their duty to this country?
But it gets worse; two former soldiers are being prosecuted for the alleged murder of IRA killer and terrorist Joe McCann. The soldiers were investigated at the time and were rightly cleared. Will they get a fair trial? Of course not. Of the three soldiers who opened fire that day, one has since died and two RUC officers who may also have fired cannot be found. There are no forensics linking the shots to any particular soldier, so no one knows who actually fired the shots—but that does not matter to the Northern Ireland prosecution service. The Northern Ireland prosecution service is headed by Barra McGrory, the former lawyer of McGuinness and Gerry Adams. You could not make this up if you thought about it.
As the former soldier said, he feels that he is being treated like a terrorist. But of course, he is totally wrong in that regard. If he had been an IRA terrorist, he would have been granted immunity by Tony Blair in one of the grubbiest deals that has ever been done by a UK leader. No wonder that soldier says that he feels betrayed by the Government, with all IRA killers granted immunity and more than 1,000 soldiers being investigated for possible crimes against them. He says, “I’d like a Minister to stand up in Parliament and say something”. I know that my noble friend is not permitted to do that and that it is not his department’s responsibility. That is why I am making this little speech tonight. I am ashamed of what is being done to those brave men who have served us so well. The time has come to stop this betrayal of our soldiers, and to stop it now.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this important debate. The BBC may have perfected the art in a long-running television series called “Just a Minute”, in which contestants are required to speak for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation. They sometimes make that minute go on for a very long time indeed. On Christmas Day that series celebrated 50 years of transmission. The fact that we are constrained to two minutes is the sort of thing that causes frustration in your Lordships’ House. It is testament to the importance of this topic that so many Members wish to speak in this debate. The Minister may like to consider initiating a longer debate in government time on the 2017 report and the Armed Forces covenant. Our Armed Forces are vital to the security and safety of our country. We owe it to them to allocate sufficient time to such a debate.
We all express our gratitude to the Armed Forces. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I am a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, and so have seen the work that our Armed Forces do but also some of the stresses that membership of the Armed Forces puts on them and their families. Longer and ever more frequent deployments raise questions for families. Should service men or women come home mid-tour if they have a brief opportunity to do so, or will that unsettle the children? All sorts of things need to be thought about. Some of the challenges of being in the forces are inevitable and there is little we can do about them, but others can be dealt with. That includes accommodation in particular. The summary report suggests that the Government are looking very closely at this. CarillionAmey has not performed well. The detailed report suggests that our service men and women are still dissatisfied with maintenance. What are the Government doing to deal with this?
My Lords, not one member of the UK Armed Forces was killed in operations in 2016. It was the first time since 1968 that no one had died—although, sadly, there were deaths on exercises. The Chilcot report exposed the way in which the MoD and Ministers ignored the strict controls known as harmony guidelines on the frequency and length of operational tours of duty that are there to protect the physical and mental health of our troops. Will the Minister talk to us about these guidelines?
The Chilcot report also revealed that in 2006 the then Sir Richard Dannatt, who was then commander-in-chief of UK land command, said:
“As an army, we are running hot, and our operational deployments are well above planned levels … Quite properly, we often talk about an implied contract—the ‘military covenant’—that as an army we have with our soldiers and their families and I fear that it is somewhat out of balance”.
Policy Exchange, in its report The Fog of Law, says that,
“human rights laws mean British troops operating in the heat of battle are now being held to the same standard as police officers patrolling the streets”,
of London. Is this applying the covenant? Surely, when it comes to our troops we should be applying IHL—the Geneva conventions—with primacy over human rights laws. Does the Minister agree?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate. Armed Forces families are living in squalor, with leaking roofs and broken toilets. The latest covenant report admits to this. A poll commissioned by SSAFA found that,
“seven out of 10 wanted to see more support given to veterans”.
It is so important that veterans are part of this.
The introduction of the Armed Forces covenant is so positive but it lacks bite. It provides excellent guidance but there is no guarantee of enforcement. Can the Minister tell us how well this is being enforced by councils around the country?
To conclude, our servicepeople are not mercenaries. They do not fight for money but to serve our country and because of appreciation. It is great that the covenant is enshrined in law, but what are the Government doing to publicise this covenant report every year? Doing so will help morale and recruitment. We can never take our services for granted. The covenant is a promise by the nation, and we must always appreciate the amazing and priceless service of our troops, and the sacrifice they make.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord for my second speech in this Chamber, as I did for my maiden speech. I hope to learn from him how to fit in so much content in such a little time.
Tonight I will focus on military spouses. They make a significant personal sacrifice to be able to effectively support their partners and families, both practically and emotionally. It is important that we publicly recognise this contribution and continue to improve the support and assistance provided through the covenant and the work of many government departments.
One area on which we can make progress is practical and effective assistance in finding employment. A recent grass-roots survey of 2,000 military spouses by Sarah Stone, herself a military spouse, shows that 84% of military spouses would like to be working, but only 58% are. Many feel penalised for being a military spouse. I quote one of the responses:
“In the first 5 years of marriage we were required to move 4 times—abroad twice. I had no chance of holding onto, never mind developing, my career. With a degree and piles of experience, I am forced to take minimum wage jobs to get by. It is soul destroying”.
We should ensure that we are doing all we can to help those who want to work—for their own sake and for the national economic picture. This is a hidden pool of talent: 70% have management experience and 35% have professional qualifications. An excellent example of real, practical help is Recruit for Spouses, an independent social enterprise started by Heledd Kendrick. Recruit for Spouses has seen many examples of spouses who have been turned down for a job because their partner is in the military, or who have lost a job because of their sudden need for flexible working when their partner has been sent away at short notice. More can be done to inform employers on the potential of employing military spouses, and to assist them in increasing flexibility.
Improving communications around the covenant is a continued challenge, acknowledged in the latest annual report. The excellent new covenant website provides a one-stop shop for information and advises on best practice, including for spousal employment, but we must ensure that this information gets to the people who need it and expand and improve this resource. I welcome the MoD’s spouse employment support trial, and I look forward to seeing its findings shape future policy. Of course, we should acknowledge the impressive work done by forces charities and families federations in supporting military families.
Military spouses face a set of unique challenges. As well as recognising the often unacknowledged contribution and sacrifice they make, we must ensure that the covenant really delivers for them, and I would welcome more focus on their particular needs in future annual reports.
My Lords, the Armed Forces community in Northern Ireland numbers over a quarter of a million people, including serving personnel, veterans and their families and people who have served from the Second World War right up to more recent conflicts in Northern Ireland and around the world. They have unique needs in terms of education, healthcare and social housing, and the Armed Forces covenant is an appropriate framework for addressing those needs. It therefore saddens me to say that Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the United Kingdom with regard to the implementation of the Armed Forces covenant. While Scotland has been effective in funding bespoke services for veterans and Wales has put in place mechanisms for fast-tracked access to the NHS, no such action has been taken by the Northern Ireland Executive. In fact, because of political disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein/IRA, the Northern Ireland Executive are not currently represented on the covenant reference group, which means that Northern Ireland does not have oversight of, or the ability to scrutinise, how funding from the £10 million per annum covenant fund is spent.
We are the only part of the United Kingdom not represented on the reference group and have therefore waived our opportunity to influence decision-making. The consequence is that service personnel, veterans and their families in Northern Ireland are disadvantaged compared with their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom. I find this wholly unacceptable.
Appointing a representative to the reference group would not cost the Northern Ireland Executive a penny. It would give our Armed Forces champions on local councils someone to work to, and it would provide a valuable link between Stormont and Westminster, ensuring that Northern Ireland receives its fair share of funding for those who serve or have served and their families.
I therefore use this opportunity to call upon the Northern Ireland Executive—or perhaps I should address this to the new Executive, if and when they are functioning—to nominate a representative to the covenant reference group so that we can deliver fairness for our Armed Forces community in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the privilege this evening to highlight and champion the Armed Forces covenant, and I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate. I declare my interest as leader of North Lincolnshire Council, as set out in the register of interests.
This debate provides an opportunity to reflect on the good progress being made but it is also an opportunity to hear about best practice throughout the UK. As we know, the covenant is a promise by the nation to ensure that those who serve and have served, together with their families, are treated with fairness and respect. It is particularly important that they are not disadvantaged as a result of their service.
My authority is proud to have signed the covenant on 19 September 2012. Since then, it has upheld the principle of promoting the fact that it is an Armed Forces-friendly organisation. As we know, there are 15 themes within the covenant but, in the time allotted, I should like to focus on just three elements: housing, work opportunities and business support.
Everyone needs good housing and a home to call their own, so included in the aims and objectives of the Homechoice Lincs policy is a recognition of the contribution made by the Armed Forces. If members of the Armed Forces are made statutorily homeless or if they have urgent medical or welfare grounds for moving, they have top priority. Importantly, members of the Armed Forces and former service personnel are treated as having a local connection if their application is made within five years of discharge. Bereaved spouses and civil partners of members of the Armed Forces leaving service family accommodation following the death of their spouse or partner are also treated as having a connection, which is very important.
Our action station, situated near the main shopping precinct, offers support with CVs, job searches, interview skills and techniques, the use of computers and IT. Dedicated advisers can also offer more structured one-to-one plans and work with individuals to help them gain employment and work experience, as well as build confidence. The action station also offers DHP advice for those who have various financial difficulties and it works with them to help them gain financial stability.
Last November we pledged to promote the covenant to our suppliers through procurement, signposting suppliers and prospective suppliers to the covenant using digital and web media, as well as procurement resource materials. At the end of this month we will invite the council’s construction partners to sign the pledge, and a wider promotional programme will then follow. As part of the FOSO, we held a jobs fair, to which serving Armed Forces personnel and veterans were invited, and local employers were there to offer live vacancies. I think that real progress is being made in meeting the challenges brought by service life so that no member of the Armed Forces community faces disadvantage.
Finally, the essence of today’s debate is not just to note where we are now but to demonstrate how the Armed Forces covenant is a vehicle for today and tomorrow, spreading covenant delivery best practice across the UK.
My Lords, I too would like to join others in thanking the right reverend Prelate for instigating this fascinating debate and for his outline of the effects and benefits of the covenant. I will speak on veterans’ health. Many men and women leave the Armed Forces and have no problems as a result of their service, and they integrate and assimilate into civilian life happily. However, others do not have that same benefit. Local authorities can be signatories to the Armed Forces covenant, but NHS bodies cannot. Veteran health is a responsibility of the NHS, not the military. Once they leave the service, veterans can drop out of the system.
When we think of veterans, it goes almost hand in hand with thinking of the Royal British Legion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, stated, it has called for two distinct changes in population data collection. First, it calls upon GPs to ask a new patient to their list whether they have served in the Armed Forces. This helps the GP to understand what issues might arise, knowing their background. Secondly, it requests that a new question is added to the census, again asking whether an individual has been a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. These measures make planning easier for local authorities, which have the responsibility for drawing up a joint strategic needs assessment on health, as well as their public health duties. These were granted under the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Local authority public health duties include sexual health services, NHS health checks, health protection and a certain number of discretionary services. These are dependent on the local population and can include alcohol and drug abuse services, smoking cessation services, public mental health programmes and dental public health. These are areas in which we know that many veterans have a defined need but, unless the local authority knows about the population, it cannot plan.
Will the Minister give some indication of where in the corridors of Richmond House, or perhaps the Cabinet Office, the Royal British Legion request on the census and on GP registration has reached and when a decision will be made?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth for securing this debate. It is fortuitous that it comes shortly after the publication of the covenant’s annual report. In its submission to that report, the Royal British Legion says:
“During this year we have encountered some confusion as a result of the Covenant rebrand and use of the term ‘treat fairly’ rather than the principles of ‘no disadvantage’ and ‘special treatment’. We would welcome both clear and regular reiteration from government of the enduring principles of the Covenant, and the prominent inclusion of the wording of the Covenant online”.
I agree with the legion. I deplore the softening of the covenant’s primary statement from “no disadvantage”, which is in part a measurable concept, to the much less precise “treat fairly”. Will the Minister accede to the legion’s proposals?
The biggest practical problem that emerges is housing. This includes for serving members and their families, for which the latest UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey shows a substantial decline in satisfaction, but it is also particularly important in the transition to civilian life. The Government made an important statutory intervention by introducing the Allocation of Housing (Qualification Criteria for Armed Forces Personnel) (England) Regulations 2012. The regulations specifically require of a housing authority that the “local connection” may not be applied to persons who are serving in the Regular Forces or have done so in the five years preceding their application; to members or former members of the Reserve Forces suffering from a serious injury, illness, or disability which is wholly or partly attributable to their service; or to bereaved spouses or civil partners leaving Ministry of Defence accommodation following the death of their spouse or partner where the death is wholly or partly attributable to the spouse or partner’s service.
I have looked into the housing allocation policies in my local area and found that performance varies between complete compliance in Wokingham and Bracknell, weak partial compliance in Rushmoor, formally Aldershot and Farnborough, and no mention of this regulation whatever in the policies of Windsor and Maidenhead. What action will the Government take to secure complete compliance in all English housing authorities of these important regulations, which seek to secure the covenant’s fundamental “no disadvantage” rule?
My Lords, before I respond, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Scott Hetherington of 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died while on operations in Iraq on Monday 2 January 2017.
The covenant is a big subject and time is unfortunately short, but I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth for securing this debate and providing us with the opportunity to examine how effectively we, as a nation, are repaying the very great debt that we owe to our brave service personnel and their families. This is a debt that we can never repay in full, but we can at least begin to honour it by ensuring that those who sacrifice so much in our defence are treated with fairness and respect.
That is exactly why the Armed Forces covenant was introduced—to set down, unequivocally and in law, the nation’s pledge that former and current members of our Armed Forces—including reservists—and their families, should suffer no disadvantage because of their service to our nation and that special provision may be appropriate for those who have given so much, such as the injured or bereaved. That is why we are working tirelessly across government to implement and improve the Armed Forces covenant, drawing together society so that we can all fulfil our moral obligation to our military family.
A seminal part of that process is, of course, the publication of the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report. It is a definitive guide to the covenant that outlines its key principles and achievements, explains what actions have been undertaken over the past 12 months and sets out targets for the coming year. The fifth and most recent report was published just last month, on 15 December, and I am delighted that it demonstrated considerable progress across government in the work that we are doing to support service personnel, their families and veterans, most notably in the key areas of healthcare, education and accommodation.
For example, 2016 saw NHS England launch its veterans’ trauma network, a new system to provide an extra level of support for trauma-recovering veterans and transitioning service personnel, so that their specific and lifelong healthcare needs are met more efficiently. Meanwhile, the Department of Health has developed a new integrated personal care for veterans system to help the most seriously injured service personnel and veterans transition into civilian life. In the devolved Administrations, NHS Scotland established 19 Armed Forces champions, while the Welsh Government provided annual funding of £585,000 to Veterans NHS Wales to improve support and treatment for veterans suffering from mental health issues.
On education, the Department for Education allocated around £22 million in service pupil premium payments to support the pastoral needs of over 73,000 service pupils in state schools in England, and it changed the rules for student funding so that service personnel and their families can now access student funding for distance learning courses while posted overseas. On accommodation, the Department for Communities and Local Government extended the period within which ex-service personnel and surviving partners are given priority for government-funded shared ownership schemes from 12 to 24 months after service.
Those are only some of the cross-government achievements, but they all serve as examples of just how far we have come since the Armed Forces Act 2011 enshrined the covenant into law. The challenge now is to build on this momentum, which is why the Government are establishing a new inter-ministerial group ensuring that all government departments continue to work together to fulfil the covenant vision. But it goes without saying that the MoD’s efforts remain central to achieving all of this and my department continues to work hard to galvanise each and every one of us into action, as the House would hope and quite rightly expect.
Let me turn now to exactly what defence has been up to over the past year. Last year saw the launch of a new UK Armed Forces families strategy setting out how we intend to improve the lives of service families in the round by addressing issues including housing, employment, education, health and welfare. The strategy is underpinned by an action plan, developed alongside the single services and families federations, and a £4 million commitment over the next two years to fund projects supporting families of service personnel in times of crisis or distress.
When it comes to supporting our veterans community, I am glad to reassure my noble friend Lady Scott and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, that the MoD is working closely with the Office for National Statistics and the Chief Statistician to include a question on veterans in the national census so that there will be a fuller picture of where former service personnel are in the UK. The Armed Forces Covenant Fund has £10 million each year to support the covenant by funding projects that address specific priorities, one of those being the creation of a veterans’ gateway. The aim of the initiative is to provide a single point of contact via a fully transactional website, mobile app and telephone number which will help veterans of all ages find and access specific advice and support for a whole host of issues.
That said, I should stress that most service leavers continue to make a smooth transition to civilian life. The Career Transition Partnership provides one-to-one guidance, training and employment opportunities to about 15,000 service leavers. Its success rate is significant: 95% of those who want to find employment do so within six months of leaving the Armed Forces, which compares to a 73% employment rate in the rest of the UK population. All personnel, without exception, are eligible for this support for two years after their date of discharge.
Underpinning this work on veterans and families is a concerted drive to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the covenant are applied correctly and consistently across the UK. Our goal is that anyone from the Armed Forces family based anywhere in the UK should know what they can expect from local authorities and their partners in the local community in terms of support and services. At the same time, front-line staff in any local authority should know just what is expected of them under the covenant. This is not always the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, rightly noted.
With this is mind, the Local Government Association, in partnership with the Forces in Mind Trust, last year commissioned a review with more than 400 representatives of local authorities to identify areas of good practice and create a covenant toolkit. This will help to raise the standard of covenant delivery across the UK. As I speak, the covenant team is developing an action plan to implement the recommendations of that review across the UK. And on the subject of consistency across the UK, to address a point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Rogan, I am delighted that the Northern Ireland Executive recently reached a consensus on sending a representative to the Cabinet Office-chaired Covenant Reference Group—a body that is key to co-ordinating the efforts of all covenant stakeholders across the nation.
At a more tactical level, the MoD has been working to resolve some of the practical difficulties encountered by our service personnel in their day-to-day lives, particularly in the commercial field. For example, in a victory for common sense, 47 of the UK’s biggest banks and building societies have now signed up to an initiative that will mean that service personnel posted away from home will be able to rent out their property without having to change to a buy-to-let mortgage, saving them time and money. Meanwhile, 86% of the UK’s motor insurance industry has now committed to waive cancellation fees and preserve no-claims discounts for up to three years when personnel and their families are posted abroad. More than 1,300 businesses and organisations have now signed the Armed Forces covenant.
Finally the team has been focusing on a subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean: improving communication about the covenant. Trying to co-opt the whole of society into delivering our covenant vision is nigh on impossible, as she said, if people do not understand what is being asked of them. Likewise, ensuring that members of our military family can take full advantage of the covenant is impossible if they do not know what is on offer. So 2016 saw a rebranding of the Armed Forces covenant. In April we launched a new website to make information about the covenant easier to find. On the ground, we saw the introduction of a 200-strong network of Armed Forces covenant champions across Armed Forces units. These military champions act as the focal point for their local community, helping to deliver information about the covenant directly to personnel and their families.
I will try to answer as many questions raised by noble Lords as I can. I will write on those that I do not address. I am happy to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that there has been no softening of the Government’s primary statement, which refers both to fair treatment and to no disadvantage.
The right reverend Prelate raised mental health. The best available evidence suggests that the mental health of veterans is as good as or better than that of the rest of the civilian population—but where problems occur, the highest standard of support is made available. More than £13 million from the LIBOR fund has been awarded to programmes specifically supporting mental health in the Armed Forces community.
A number of noble Lords referred to accommodation. We continue to invest in improving accommodation for our people and their families. Standards have significantly improved. Regarding social housing for service leavers, the MoD works closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that service personnel do not experience any disadvantage as a result of their military service when applying for social housing. The MoD referral scheme assists service leavers and their families with social housing applications following discharge.
Considerable help is available on education and schools for service children; I will write on that subject. My noble friend Lady Sugg rightly emphasised the contribution of Armed Forces families and spouses. Again, I will write on that subject.
I listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Blencathra on the Northern Ireland legacy issues. I can tell him before I write that the Defence and Northern Ireland Secretaries are working to create a Stormont House Agreement Bill to ensure that veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked whether I could give reassurance that the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Committee will be able to continue its good work. I cannot commit funding from the Dispatch Box at the moment, but I will find out the details and write to him.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about the composition of war pensions and compensation tribunals. I have today written to the noble and gallant Lord on this subject. In brief, it is something that we will look at as part of the wider MoJ-led transformation of tribunals. It is very much a matter in its focus.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asked about harmony guidelines. We are working to ensure that the three services’ harmony guidelines are met, but I fear there will continue to be occasions when that is not possible. Our job is to minimise those occasions and that is what we are trying to do.
My time is up. I hope that the House will accept that a great deal is going on. There is more that we can do and room for improvement, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to work with all our partners on removing disadvantage, instilling fairness and respect, and meeting the unique needs of our Armed Forces community.