Armed Forces Covenant: 17th March 2014

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con)
11. What steps he is taking to strengthen the armed forces covenant. [903055]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
We continually review areas where we can make a difference, from home purchase schemes and health care to transition and increased pupil premiums in schools, and our approach is making a difference right across the armed forces community. Upholding the covenant is not a matter just for the Government; it is the responsibility of the whole of society. Charities, employers, local authorities and individuals are all asked to recognise members of the armed forces community and give them the respect, support and fair treatment that they so richly deserve.

Mr Raab
A 2012 survey showed that one in five of our armed forces received abuse back home, and 6% were victims of violence. I do not think we need to ​legislate for new offences, but is my hon. Friend satisfied that the police properly investigate all allegations, and has she considered with other Government colleagues the case for raising the sentence for criminal violence harassment where it deliberately targets serving British troops?

Anna Soubry
As my hon. Friend will know, different offences relating to violence have different sentences attached to them. I do not think there is a case for raising those sentences overall, and the sentencing guidelines make it clear that if somebody is assaulted by virtue of their being in the armed forces, that is clearly an aggravating feature and as a result, in simple terms, the perpetrator receives a higher sentence—and rightly so.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
In opening, the Minister rightly mentioned transition. Given the concerns about members of the armed forces’ transition that were highlighted in the recent review by Lord Ashcroft, which of his recommendations will the Ministry of Defence be taking forward?

Anna Soubry
We are considering all the recommendations in Lord Ashcroft’s report. On balance, it was a positive report, and it shows what many of us know—that when our personnel transit out of service, they do so extremely well. They are more likely to find a job than other members of society, because of the remarkable skills that they have, often as a result of the experience that they gained as members of our military. On balance, things are working well, but that does not mean that we cannot do more. We are looking at that report and at improving things, and much of the work I am doing leads to that.

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con)
On Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the Service Complaints Commissioner would become an ombudsman, for which the existing commissioner, the excellent Dr Susan Atkins, and the Defence Committee have been calling for years. Does the Under-Secretary agree that this very welcome move will mean that the complaints system will be both quicker and fairer, and will help to bring in more aspects of the armed forces covenant?

Anna Soubry
Absolutely. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend in his assessment of the benefits of this new system. As he says, Dr Susan Atkins has welcomed this greatly, and may I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the great work she has done? I notice that the Royal British Legion also welcomed these changes. The new system will do exactly as he says: it will help to speed things up, and where there has been maladministration the service complaints ombudsman will not shirk from making recommendations to the Defence Council, and we will see huge improvements.