Military Covenant: 22nd October 2014

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry)
It really is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), and I am very grateful for his speech. It might have looked as though those of us sitting on the Front Bench were muttering away, so I hope he did not think that we were doing so in some disrespectful way; in fact, we were listening to and discussing many of the very good points that he raised. I join him, and I am sure everybody else in this place, in paying tribute to all those who have served, especially to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and, of course, their families.

One of the most interesting parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech—I confess freely that I had not thought of it in this way before—was when he talked about mental health, a subject that is dear to my heart. We are making very good progress, in all our armed forces, in how we deal with mental health. Certainly, the statistics show that we do not have a higher incidence overall of mental health problems among people who are leaving our armed services than among those in the greater population. I would like to discuss further all the matters he raised, but particularly his very good points about post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these men saw traumatic incidents when they served, and that affected their families as well. Of course, they ​did not have the benefit of going back home, because that was their home. He made some very interesting and important points. As I say, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss everything that he advanced in his speech.

I welcome the support of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and its endorsement of the armed forces covenant and the two key principles on which it is based. The first is that the armed forces community should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. We are therefore saying not “an advantage” but “no disadvantage.” I am sure everyone present understands that, but it is important that we get that message out. The second key principle is that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured or the bereaved.
 
Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Obviously, we carried out the report in great detail. Since then I have come across a case in my own constituency regarding a young lady whose father was based in Germany. They had a British forces post office address, but, on their return, she was unable to claim jobseeker’s allowance because she was not registered as being habitually resident here. That is a very clear example of how that family is disadvantaged. If that is incorrect I would be glad to take that back to her.
 
Anna Soubry
I would, of course, be more than happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and see whether we can sort it out.

The armed forces covenant is a clear statement of how members of the armed forces community should expect to be treated, no matter where they live in the country. That reflects the moral obligation we have to all of those who have given so much for their country.

Over the past four years, the Government have delivered a comprehensive programme of activity to rebuild the covenant around the country. We have delivered improvements in health care—both at home and on operations—and in education, housing and, more broadly, the way we support all members of the armed forces community. For example, additional funding by the Government now ensures that our injured personnel have access to the latest world-leading prosthetic limbs, and that the high standard of care they receive in the armed forces continues after they leave. I am not suggesting that everything is perfect, but we have certainly made considerable progress.

Bob Stewart
I speak as a disabled ex-serviceman—I am 30% disabled. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report states:

“Priority NHS treatment—in England, Scotland and Wales there was priority NHS treatment for veterans with Service-related injuries subject to the clinical needs of others, but in Northern Ireland there was no such priority.”

I assume we are trying to get it for Northern Ireland.

Anna Soubry
We are. Members will have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has come to the Chamber specifically to listen to the debate. He has reminded me—I should have known ​this—that he has already visited Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is not in his place, but I remember him inviting me to Northern Ireland some time ago when I had a different ministerial role. I assume that that invitation still stands—his colleagues will no doubt ask him about that for me. I would be more than happy to come over—in fact, I would love to—and not only see the examples of which we have heard, but help in any way I can so that people in Northern Ireland understand what the covenant is all about.

Mr Thomas
After the hon. Lady has been to Northern Ireland, I wonder whether I could tempt her to go to Virginia in the United States and visit the home base of the Navy Federal credit union. It is the world’s biggest credit union and the only people who can join it are members of the US military and their families. Would that offer further motivation for the hon. Lady in her helpful conversations with civil servants at the Ministry of Defence about the possibility of a British military credit union?

Anna Soubry
I think that’s a bit off the motion, if I may say so, but, hey, it doesn’t matter: it’s always worth getting in a good point. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to speak to the noble Lord Kennedy, with whom I had a very good meeting recently, who will tell him that huge progress has been made on credit unions.

To return to the subject of the debate, we have ensured that war pensions and armed forces compensation payments for veterans are disregarded for the purposes of entitlement to benefits, and that the most seriously injured veterans receive a new independence payment so they are not affected by changes to the disability living allowance. Those are just some examples of the steps we have taken to support our armed forces community and ensure the Government are living up to the principles of the armed forces covenant. The 2014 armed forces covenant annual report, which will be laid before Parliament before Christmas, will provide further details on the work we have done and the progress that we have made, as well as on areas in which we need to do more.

In a devolved society, there will always be differences in service provision in different parts of the UK. Only yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending the Army Families Federation annual conference, at which several people made quite serious complaints about standards. For example, some of those from Wales complained about education and health in Wales, over which, unfortunately, I have no control whatever. We are aware that there are disparities in services, but I am afraid that that is often the consequence of devolution.

It is heartening that even with the different political and legal situation in Northern Ireland—as we have heard, such differences can make armed forces issues more challenging than elsewhere in the country—the armed forces covenant now extends to Northern Ireland almost in its entirety, notwithstanding the difficulties of councils not signing up. I must mention one of our concerns. We now know that all councils in Britain have signed up to the covenant, but the most important thing is for them to deliver on it. If I may say so, it is very easy for a council to sign up to it, put out a press release and get all the good publicity, but delivery is what is most important. We certainly take the view that there has been some good delivery in Northern Ireland.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD)
My hon. Friend is talking about councils. With 150,000 or so veterans living in Northern Ireland, which is a considerable number given its size, does she agree that it was unhelpful that no members of the Northern Ireland Executive responded to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s invitation to appear before it?

Anna Soubry
All I can say is that I do not see how on earth it can help if no such Ministers came along, because the more people who get themselves involved the better for everybody concerned, but that is just my view.

Lady Hermon
May I, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, correct the record? Two Ministers from the Executive came before the Committee. If my memory serves me correctly, they were the then Health Minister, Edwin Poots, and his colleague the then Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.

Anna Soubry
I am more than happy for the record to be corrected. I am delighted that they came along. I had dealings with Edwin Poots, and if I may say so, I always found him very good in his role as Health Minister in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, we are beginning to see good delivery on the covenant. That was demonstrated by the fantastic support at Newtownards, where 25,000 people attended the Northern Ireland regional Armed Forces day event, and a further 10,000 lined the parade route through the town.

Lord Ashcroft’s report has been mentioned. “The Veterans’ Transition Review” highlighted that the majority of former service personnel go on to lead very successful civilian lives, begin new careers and enjoy good health. However, it also acknowledged that the vast amount of support available to former service personnel throughout the UK can always be improved. The Government have now published our response to Lord Ashcroft’s report. As ever, I pay tribute to him for the huge amount of work he did in compiling it. It provides coherent guidance on how to improve the transition process, and it has been hugely helpful.

For those who are not familiar with the detail of the report, I confirm that 20 of Lord Ashcroft’s recommendations are already in place in full or in part, 11 are being developed and another eight are being investigated. Specifically on Northern Ireland, he recommended that armed forces champions should be appointed to allow service leavers and veterans to claim their entitlements without fearing for their personal security. I must say that we have found no evidence that previous service in the armed forces was in any way preventing our ex-service personnel from accessing the services provided by Northern Ireland Departments.

I am delighted to confirm that from April 2015, each of what I believe are called super-councils—the new local authorities—will nominate both a non-elected official and a councillor to be members of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland. That must be an indication that progress is being made. The councillor will also act as the local veterans champion. They will manage local sensitivities, where they arise, and enable political action at the appropriate level to ​ensure that cases are progressed satisfactorily. That is really good progress. We want all local authorities across the United Kingdom to have a local veterans champion, so Northern Ireland is leading the way. That is another example of the covenant in action.

There are three recommendations in Lord Ashcroft’s report that we are not taking forward. One of those is Northern Ireland-focused. We simply do not agree—although we are always listening—with his view that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 should be amended. Some hon. Members have said that, from time to time, section 75 has held back the extension of the covenant measures to Northern Ireland, but we do not think that is the case. However, as I have said, I am going to go over to Northern Ireland and speak to people.

When we last discussed these matters, we reported that some 93% of the covenant measures—this is how we judge whether the covenant is beginning to work—applied in Northern Ireland and that 7% were yet to be met. We are making progress. In June this year, when he was the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) updated the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and advised it that

“practically all of the outstanding covenant measures now apply, or will soon do so, in Northern Ireland.”

It is particularly pleasing to note that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has endorsed the Government’s view that there is no need for section 75 to be amended. In its report of July 2013, the Committee stated that it was

“reassured that the Northern Ireland equality framework does not create a greater barrier to implementation of the Covenant in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. It is important this is understood by those involved in the delivery of services to the Armed Forces Community.”

I have no doubt that everyone in the Chamber will share our sincere hope that those reassurances will be communicated throughout Northern Ireland. Indeed, much of this debate will be communicated throughout Northern Ireland, so that everybody understands what the covenant is all about, which is ensuring that there is no disadvantage.

Despite some concerns, the covenant is not only alive and well in Northern Ireland, but is going from strength to strength. That is testimony to the widespread commitment to the armed forces covenant across communities. Despite the difficulties of Northern Ireland’s unique history and political situation, we have seen real achievements in its progress.

In addition to the veterans champions, a bid supporting the legacy co-ordinator’s post within the UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service, of which we have heard much, received £50,000 from the £35 million of LIBOR funding that we have made available. That funding meant that the role was extended for two years, offering support and advice to statutory and voluntary organisations and individuals covering a range of issues. The Ministry of Defence fully recognises the medical care needs of veterans, which is why it funds measures such as the aftercare service to work alongside the NHS in delivering high-quality support and care. The aftercare service’s continuing collaboration with 38 (Irish) Brigade and the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association has led to the identification of possible ​research studies in Northern Ireland on future armed forces covenant activities and the needs and concerns of the veteran community.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
The Minister has mentioned the cadets. Does she recognise the immense contribution of the cadets to better community relations across Northern Ireland? In parts of the Province, the take-up for the cadets is very high among communities that in the past would have been perceived as nationalist communities.

Anna Soubry
I absolutely agree. The cadets bring many bonuses to individuals and, as the hon. Gentleman identifies, across the communities. I commend that marvellous organisation to anyone with a youngster. It is a win-win all round.

To make the most of our whole welfare force we have set up a veterans support forum that brings together MOD representatives, all the service charities, and veterans support organisations, to pool information and resources and ensure that those in need can be sign-posted towards the most effective help. In a way, it is quite similar to the Confederation of Service Charities—Cobseo—in Great Britain, and it is great to bring people together in that way. I am also pleased to note that discussions are ongoing with Help for Heroes, Combat Stress, and the Forces in Mind Trust, which all do a great job, about expanding that work in Northern Ireland, and all are due to be present at the next meeting of the veterans support forum.

In future, as the old Administrations draw down we should mark, with thanks, their support for the armed forces, and as the political landscape of Northern Ireland changes, we must focus on sustaining our momentum. The reforms relating to public administration in Northern Ireland will undoubtedly bring governance challenges for the newly created super-councils in April 2015, and we look forward to building and developing new relationships, and underpinning the unique set of circumstances in the region. We should not be afraid to expand on existing provisions and relationships where it is practical so to do, while also being mindful of personal and community opinions about the armed forces, which have been shaped by generations of bitter conflict. If I may say so, we should always look to the future.

We have made good progress, but it does not stop there and work is being undertaken to investigate how to embed and sustain covenant activity throughout the country, and to ensure that members of the armed forces community can access the information and support the need in their local communities.

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con)
I am incredibly proud that this Government enshrined the military covenant in law, and its effectiveness will really be in whether it is just about fine words or actions. May I draw the Minister’s attention to a case in my constituency, which I think has wider relevance? A constituent of mine, Mark Iles, feels that he has been hard done by as a veteran in his pension from the Ministry of Defence. He has written to the MOD and to Ministers steadfastly over a number of years, asking about the details of his case, and also asking about the military covenant and whether he has been fairly treated. No Minister or the MOD will be ​drawn on that question. How does the military covenant interact with his circumstances, and has he been fairly treated as an individual? Is it Government policy that no serviceman or veteran can ask that question?

Anna Soubry
Not at all, and as I always say in this place, my door is always open. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss that case. In my experience, my officials and I take all cases very seriously, and the attention and care that is given to cases and to letters is incredibly impressive. That is my experience, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss the case that he has quite rightly raised.

The Government will continue to work with the service charities, and we all join in praising their great work, as well as that of local communities and industry throughout the UK. We must identify measures that will reinforce the armed forces covenant message, and develop a long-term action plan that builds on the current momentum. Most crucially, we must help society to fulfil its moral obligation to our brave servicemen and women, and their families, both now and in the future.