Armed Forces Covenant: 23rd February 2015

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con)
1. What progress he has made on strengthening the armed forces covenant. [907667]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry)
I am incredibly proud of the fact that it was this Government who enshrined the covenant in law. We should all be extremely proud of that, and of the work we have done.

I wrote to all the local authorities that signed the covenant. I have been overwhelmed by their response, and by the outstanding work that many are doing in delivering on their pledges. We must now ensure that that work continues throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr Speaker
I believe that the Minister’s justified pride is accompanied by a desire for a grouping.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Incidentally, I received a letter from Gedling, whose contents I may share with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker).

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con)
10. What progress he has made on strengthening the armed forces covenant. [907676]

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
12. What progress he has made on strengthening the armed forces covenant. [907678]

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con)
14. What progress he has made on strengthening the armed forces covenant. [907680]

Mr Jones
The Veterans Contact Point armed forces centre, which is based in my constituency, does vital work to support veterans, many of whom have found the transition from the armed forces to civvy street extremely difficult. Will my hon. Friend visit the centre to see the excellent work that is being done by a vital charity that supports people throughout the Coventry and Warwickshire area?
 
Anna Soubry
Yes, indeed. I look forward to visiting it on, I believe, 9 March. I have seen the website of that excellent charity, and I pay wholehearted tribute to the work that is being done by a wide variety of people. I note that the local council has reduced the charity’s rent in recognition of its commitment to the covenant. As I have said, we must now roll out that work throughout the United Kingdom.
 
Charlie Elphicke
Some people leave the armed forces suffering from mental health conditions. What action has been taken by the Government as a whole to help people who are suffering from those debilitating conditions?

Anna Soubry
We have invested an extra £7.4 million in precisely that sort of work. I pay tribute to Stockton-on-Tees borough council, which—along with other councils ​in the north-east—has been doing outstanding work, and whose chief executive has written to me. Councils are working across the piece, bringing together all the relevant bodies and people, and delivering good mental health services to veterans in particular.

Jack Lopresti
Is there a follow-up system to ensure that when people leave the armed forces they do not fall by the wayside when it comes to medical provision?

Anna Soubry
It is critical that we get that right. At present, such services are delivered only at a local level. Many councils are involved, including those in the Greater Manchester combined authority, which signed the covenant at the end of December. All those councils are doing outstanding work which they are determined to continue, on a completely cross-party basis. They are working with a number of parties, bringing in health authorities, hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups. What is beginning to happen in councils must now be replicated throughout the United Kingdom.
 
Mike Weatherley
What progress has been made in regard to the commitment to an armed forces charter based on the covenant that was made by the United States and others during the NATO summit?

Anna Soubry
That is a good point. We need to proceed with that commitment. It was a great honour for me to go to the United States, meet other veterans Ministers, and share best practice. A number of countries are particularly interested in our work in delivering on the covenant, and, because other countries do things in different ways, we learn from each other. NATO has provided us with a very good device to enable us to share that best practice and, as I have said, to learn from each other.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab)
I am sure the Minister will welcome the fact that Flintshire county council, which is in my area, has signed the covenant, but what assessment has she made of the number of services charities that understand what it means in practice?

Anna Soubry
That, too, is a good question. The short answer is that it varies. It is clear from the website of the charity mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) that a huge number of charities have signed up and are delivering across the country. Progress is sporadic, because not everyone “gets it”, but others absolutely do “get it”, and some great work is being done out there.
 
David Wright (Telford) (Lab)
I am pleased to say that Telford & Wrekin council has signed the covenant on a cross-party basis. What has the Minister done internally, within the Government, to ensure that individual Departments are delivering on the covenant? The Ministry of Defence is doing a very good job, but it is important for other Departments to commit themselves as well.
 
Anna Soubry
I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman says we are doing a good job, because I think we are, and he is absolutely right. We now must make sure others do not just sign up, but actually start to deliver. On the work the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for example, has been doing with jobcentres, ​I recently went to my own jobcentre in Beeston—not for reasons connected with 7 May, I quickly add—and looked at the work it is doing with reserves and veterans. That is sporadic; not every jobcentre or Jobcentre Plus “gets it”, to put it in that way, but increasingly they do and that is invariably because of the good work of Members of Parliament and local councils.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
I am incredibly proud of the fact that Tameside was the first council in Greater Manchester to sign the armed forces covenant, followed very quickly by Stockport, and the Minister is absolutely right to commend the work of the Greater Manchester combined authority, the first whole city region in the country to bring together councils and public bodies across the area for the armed forces covenant, but what is she doing to make sure that in other parts of the country local authorities are committing time and resources and making sure the same services are available to our armed forces personnel so that we do not have a patchwork quilt?
 
Anna Soubry
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have an excellent letter here from the leader of Wigan council, Lord Smith, extensively detailing all the great work being done. One of the tasks I want to do in the remaining weeks of this Government is to make sure the covenant team with the MOD brings all this work together and gives more advice to local authorities on sharing best practice, because it is stacked full of ideas. There is £30 million available to deliver on many of these projects, and I am pleased to say many are taking that up as well.
 
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)
The armed forces covenant had, of course, the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but does the Minister accept that this is still very much a work in progress? Not all local authorities understand it. Only last week Essex county council refused to continue a support package for the needs of one military family moving with their child from another part of the country.

Anna Soubry
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I have to say my own county council in Nottinghamshire did not understand the covenant when it came to a soldier constituent of mine coming down from Catterick who needed to have a place for his child. I reminded the county council of the covenant. That is the sort of work that local MPs can do when these cases come to us through our casework. It is about making sure we share best practice. There is masses more work to be done, and it would be nice to think I might be able to continue after 7 May, Mr Speaker, but that takes us into different territory.
 
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op)
The Minister of State says that other people do not get it. I am not sure that she gets it, because why else would she be consulting on removing the principle of no disadvantage from the armed forces covenant? I refer of course to the consultation she has commissioned through her officials that Woodnewton Associates is carrying out. She looks confused; I am surprised if she does not know that her own officials are carrying out this consultation. Is that because the Government are still refusing to test their own policies against the principles ​of no disadvantage? A Labour Government will test our policies against the armed forces covenant, and we will not drop the principle of no disadvantage, which this Government are apparently thinking about doing.

Anna Soubry
Of course the hon. Lady forgets that she has got to win an election, and there is every chance she will not do so. Let me make it absolutely clear: as far as I and the rest of the team here are concerned, this is news to us and we are absolutely committed to the principle of no disadvantage. [Interruption.] It is in the covenant, and chuntering from the sidelines achieves nothing.