With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the armed forces covenant. The Government have no higher duty than the defence of the realm, and the nation has no greater obligation than to look after those who have served it. The men and women of the three services, regulars and reservists, whether they are serving today or have done so in the past, their families and those who have lost a loved one in service, all deserve our support and respect. That obligation is encapsulated in the armed forces covenant.
The ties between the nation, its Government, and its armed forces are not the product of rules and regulations, nor of political fashion. They are much deeper than that. They have endured for generations and they go to the heart of our national life. The armed forces covenant therefore does not need to be a long and detailed charter. It should be a simple and timeless statement of the moral obligation that we owe. We are therefore publishing today a new version of the covenant, written for the first time on a tri-service basis.
The covenant is enduring, but it will mean different things at different times. The expectations of today’s servicemen and women are, rightly, different from those of their predecessors. Alongside the covenant we have published guidance on what we believe it means in today’s circumstances. It sets out a framework for how the members of the armed forces community can expect to be treated, and the aspirations and expectations that we believe are implicit in the covenant.
The covenant and the guidance do not, however, describe what the Government are doing to put that into effect. That is why I am also publishing a paper, entitled “The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow”, that sets out the practical measures we are taking to support the covenant. The paper brings together the commitments we have already made with the new measures that I am announcing today.
A number of those measures take forward the ideas of Professor Hew Strachan, who led an independent taskforce on the covenant last year. I should like to record the Government’s thanks—and, I imagine, the Opposition’s thanks—for his extremely valuable work. Today, we are also publishing the Government’s full response to his report.
One of Professor Strachan’s most important recommendations was the introduction of a community covenant. That will strengthen communities and build new links between them, local government and the armed forces. I can today announce that we are allocating up to £30 million over the next four years to support joint projects, at a local level, between the services or veterans groups and the wider community.
The Armed Forces Bill, which the House will shortly have a further opportunity to consider, contains provision for an annual report on the armed forces covenant, which is designed to strengthen this House’s ability to scrutinise how we are fulfilling our obligations. In that way, the existence of the covenant is being recognised in statute for the first time, as promised by the Prime Minister last year.
In deciding how best to recognise the covenant in law, the Government have had to maintain a careful balance. On the one hand, we do not want to see the chain of command undermined or the military permanently involved in human rights cases in the European Courts. On the other, we must ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the wider service community, the armed forces charities and the British public for our armed forces are met.
We believe that a sensible way forward—one that will give the right kind of legal basis to the armed forces covenant for the first time in our history—is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise that review through the annual report, and ensure that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent. I believe that it is right for the Government to be held to account on delivering the principles underpinning the covenant by this House, and not by the European Courts. That is what our approach will ensure.
I want to highlight two important aspects. First, the Government will set out on the face of the Armed Forces Bill the key principles that we believe underpin both the covenant and any report on its implementation. Ensuring that members of the armed forces community do not suffer disadvantage as a result of their service, and that where appropriate they receive special treatment, are at the heart of the armed forces covenant. I can tell the House this afternoon that the Government will bring forward amendments before Third Reading to require the Secretary of State to address those principles in preparing his report to Parliament, and to recognise the unique nature of service life.
Secondly, I made clear to the House on
We are working with the external reference group to update its terms of reference in line with its significant new role. The Government place great importance on maintaining our dialogue with bodies such as the service families federations and the major service and ex-service charities, which tell us what is happening on the ground, and I pay tribute to the invaluable contribution they make to the welfare of the armed forces community. In particular, I pay tribute to the contribution to this debate of the Royal British Legion, which continues to do such outstanding work in support of our armed forces.
The armed forces covenant is not just about words; it is about actions. The men and women of our armed forces judge us by what we do to improve their lives and those of their families. Since taking office, the coalition Government have taken a series of important measures to rebuild the covenant. I shall mention just some of them: we have doubled the operational allowance; we have included service children in the pupil premium; we have introduced scholarships for the children of bereaved service families; and we have taken action to improve mental health care. These measures are especially impressive when set against the background of the dire economic situation in which the Government must operate as a result of the previous Government’s legacy.
There is much still to do, however. I have always been clear that our commitment to rebuild the covenant is a journey that we are beginning, not something we can do overnight, and I believe that the British people understand that. We are continuing to take action, however, and I am today announcing additional measures that will tackle some of the problems experienced by serving personnel, their families and veterans. I have already mentioned the new community covenant grant scheme. However, we are also setting up a new fund of £3 million per year over and above the pupil premium arrangements to support state schools catering for significant numbers of service children. We will also launch a veterans card that will allow access to discounts and privileges.
Furthermore, in helping injured personnel, we will guarantee that veterans suffering serious genital injuries have access to three cycles of IVF, wherever they live. We will also increase the rate of council tax relief for military personnel serving on operations overseas from 25% to 50%. In addition, between now and the summer recess, I expect there to be further announcements that will again underline that this is a priority across the whole of Government, and not just for Defence. Today Ministers are chairing a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss and agree ways to improve access to housing for our service people. The Health Secretary and I are looking forward to the report by my hon. Friend Dr Murrison on how to improve further the supply of prosthetics for injured personnel. Also, we will consider how to ensure that the guaranteed income payments made under the armed forces compensation scheme are not required to be used to pay for social care provided by the public sector.
The obligation we owe to our service men and women, set against the commitment and sacrifice that they make, is enormous. In the current financial climate we cannot do as much to honour that obligation, or do it as quickly, as we would like, but we can make clear the road on which we are embarked. Our understanding of the covenant will change over time, as will the way in which the Government and society meet it. The framework we have set out today provides the necessary flexibility to ensure that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt they owe to our armed forces, their families and our veterans. I commend it to the House.
Today we are reminded of our armed forces and the sacrifices that they make in defence of our country. They and their families are in all our hearts. Their actions overseas make Britain’s streets safer, and we not only honour them, but celebrate their immeasurable professionalism and bravery. In that context we support the headline measures announced in today’s statement, which can improve the well-being of service communities.
However, in the military covenant it appears that the Government are doing the right thing for entirely the wrong reason. The Armed Forces Bill is currently going through Parliament, and was meant to be debated just last week. The Government faced concerted pressure in Parliament—along with enormous concern in the country—to amend the Bill and enshrine the military covenant in law. However, at short notice and in the face of almost certain defeat in Parliament, that was delayed so that Ministers could organise this retreat, which they are announcing today.
As someone who has been open in saying that we should have gone further in the past to take the covenant out of the cut and thrust of party politics and put its principles in law, I congratulate all who played a part in the campaign. However, the Secretary of State today finds himself in the peculiar position of announcing a policy that he recently voted against. In February my colleagues and I tabled an Opposition day motion that called for
The Minister responsible for veterans has been the principal covenant-denier. In February he said in Committee that to “write down” the covenant and
“try to codify it by statute would be, frankly…surprising.”
“The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law.” ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill,
Those were the words of Ministers in February. Although today’s announcement is welcome, it is not an action of conviction by the Government, but an act of submission to the parliamentary arithmetic that was building against them.
In the few minutes that I have, let me turn to the other measures in today’s statement and strike a more bipartisan tone. Many of the announced measures appear to have their roots in the 2008 Command Paper on service personnel. We will want to look at the detail of today’s proposals. Let me ask the Secretary of State some specific questions and invite him to offer the House, and forces families, direct answers. Can he say what criteria will be used to identify those qualifying for council tax relief, and whether they will be the same as for those receiving the operational allowance? Will those currently serving in Libya or Afghanistan benefit from the policy?
The announcement on concessionary travel is welcome. The Secretary of State will know that the Command Paper announced that the bus concession in England would be extended to include service personnel and veterans under the age of 60 who were seriously injured. Can he share with the House whether his announcement today is the implementation of that policy, or whether it is an entirely new announcement?
On housing, can the Secretary of State say whether today’s announcement is in addition to or supersedes the introduction by the previous Government in January last year of the shared equity armed forces home ownership scheme? How many forces families will benefit from the scheme announced today? He has said that a new veteran’s card will be introduced. We strongly welcome that, but again, the Minister responsible for veterans said in February that
“the Government still have no intention of introducing a veterans card,” adding:
“I do not think that a veterans ID card is necessary, even in relation to access to commercial discounts.”––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill,
What role will the veterans card have if it is not to be used for commercial discounts? Will the Secretary of State say who will pay for the card and how much it will cost?
My final specific question is to invite the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House whether he would consider exempting the seriously injured and war widows from the impact of recent pensions and benefits indexation changes, which will lead to enormous financial loss on the part of those who have given so much to our country. I am sure that the House and the British people would like to know his thoughts on that matter.
I have asked a number of questions in response to direct announcements made today by the Secretary of State. We will support today’s announcement, but we will scrutinise it. We will want to know which of the announcements are genuinely new and involve new investment. However, the Government are entitled to widespread support on setting out to enshrine the military covenant properly in law. If they set out to achieve what they have announced today, the Opposition will strongly support them in that.
I am grateful for the welcome—the basic welcome—that the right hon. Gentleman has given. Yes, it is perfectly true that the Opposition raised some of the issues in a recent debate—except that they would not define what they meant, nor would they tell us what rights they might create or how they would pay for them, yet they expected us to take them seriously. The reason why we have taken time to produce these reports and responses to detailed work is that we want to get the policies right and do the right thing for our armed forces, their families and their personnel.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the doubling of council tax relief. As I said, this will be 50% for personnel on eligible operations overseas. It will go to all those who currently get the 25% discount, which is a wider definition than that used for the operational allowance, but not to all those serving overseas—for example, in Germany. He also asked about the launching of the veterans card. It will be used to access commercial discounts or privileges, and we will consider how to expand it to include service families. It is linked to the relaunch of the defence discount scheme next year. It is not an ID card, for the reasons that we consistently gave in Committee and in the House.
On indexation, when the change was made from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, none of us in the coalition Government wanted to see anyone in the public sector disadvantaged—but may I remind the Labour party that it left us with a £158 billion deficit, which has to be addressed? We will spend more on debt interest next year than on defence, the Foreign Office and aid put together. That is the scale of the problem, and it is the deficit deniers who are now on the Opposition Benches who put this country at risk. They had 13 years in office, yet they now have the audacity, after 12 months, to tell us that we are doing things at the eleventh hour. No credibility!
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and Professor Strachan on his outstanding work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that members of the armed forces are the only people in the country who face competition between having enough ships, aeroplanes and bullets, and having decent accommodation and health care? What can we do about that competition?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point, which we have grappled with in our approach to the covenant. The reason why equipment is not in the military covenant today is that the covenant for the welfare of our personnel involves a pact not just between the Government and the armed forces but between the whole nation and the armed forces. That includes local government, communities, charities and private individuals. The provision of the right equipment for our armed forces is a duty of the Government, and it should primarily be seen as the duty of the Government rather than of the wider national community. It is the Government who should properly be held to account for that.
The Secretary of State’s congratulations to the Royal British Legion are well deserved, because it was its campaign more than anything else that forced this most welcome retreat by the Government. He will know that what wound the Royal British Legion up more than anything else was the attempt to water down the involvement of the reference group in the monitoring system set up under the Command Paper on service personnel. He appears to be saying that that is now to be restored, and that that role will be fully implemented in the proposed reporting mechanism. Can he confirm that there is to be no watering down of the involvement of the reference group—the stakeholders and the service personnel charities, including the Royal British Legion itself—in the ongoing reporting on the covenant?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for asking for clarification on that point, and I can give him this assurance, which, as he knows, I have given the House on a number of occasions. I have wanted to see a maximising of transparency on this, and I have therefore decided that the external reference group will be able to see the Secretary of State’s report in advance and comment on it, and that we will publish those comments and any other representations at the same time as we publish the report of the covenant to Parliament.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s attempt to draw a distinction between Government and community obligation, but is not the Government’s responsibility also a moral one? For that reason, should we not recognise that the Government have a duty not to expose our armed forces to unnecessary risk, always to provide equipment that is fit for purpose, and to ensure that the operations that our men and women are obliged to take part in are always proportionate and legal?
Legality has to be a foregone conclusion in this House if we are to take our appropriate place in the international family of civilised nations. As to the Government’s duty in sending our armed forces into combat, I would say that they have two clear duties: one is to ensure that we maximise the chance of success of their mission; the second is ensuring the minimum risk to them in carrying out that mission. Both those duties imply that the armed forces must be properly equipped for any task that any Government ever send them to carry out.
I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about three cycles of IVF for the injured when they come back. He will know that that is virtually the first thing that the young men who return to the Queen Elizabeth hospital from Afghanistan will ask about. He also mentioned prosthetics. When it comes to rehabilitating soldiers, we are doing things with them—and doing them better—that are not yet happening in the NHS. What work is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that what we learn from the treatment of our veterans can be translated back to the NHS and the wider population?
The hon. Lady makes two valuable points. As regards the first, on IVF, it is bad enough that we often deny mobility and life chances to individuals, but to deny them the chance of producing another generation is worse, particularly when it is something that we can avoid. We should avoid it, and doing so sends out an important signal about the pastoral care that we are willing to give to our armed forces. Today’s announcement is a key one, which I think will be welcomed across the whole country.
On the hon. Lady’s second point, I think many of us will celebrate the fact that the care we give our armed forces is so much better than others might receive in the NHS that parity is being demanded. That is not a bad position for a country to be in, in terms of the care it gives to service people. The work we are undertaking with the Department of Health will set out to see what lessons the NHS can learn from the treatment of those who have been injured in military action and I believe that that is a very proud moment for the country.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making his statement and on its contents, and Professor Hew Strachan on his excellent work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the “no disadvantage” enjoinder within the military covenant establishes a floor and not a ceiling, and that the men and women of our armed forces will particularly welcome the special provisions that he has announced even more than the commitment to establish the covenant and its principles on a firmer footing, which has so exercised the Opposition?
May I take this opportunity—I hope on behalf of the whole House—to thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on the work he has done, particularly on mental health and prosthetics, which Ms Stuart mentioned? I am sure that his words will be much appreciated. It is important to set out these two provisions whereby there is no disadvantage to our armed forces, their families or our veterans in pursuing a military career, and whereby, if necessary, the rest of society accepts that special measures might have to be taken to recompense our armed forces personnel for the risks that they are willing to take for the safety and security of the rest of us.
I have always believed that how people are treated is very important, but that how our armed forces are treated is of paramount importance. The Navy personnel in my constituency are concerned about their future with regard to air traffic control, and also HMS Gannet. What progress has been made on the contract, and will it be placed at Prestwick?
I am afraid that I cannot make an announcement on that today, although the hon. Gentleman will know that it is part of our wider considerations. I appreciate that the delay brings uncertainty, but it is important to get the wider defence decisions correct overall. As soon as I have any news on HMS Gannet, I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is informed in the first instance.
On Thursday we had the homecoming parade of the Argylls—the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland—who are based in my constituency. I met its last commanding officer, Colonel Richmond, who is at the end of a three-year recovery from a very severe wound to the leg. May I share with the Secretary of State the observation that he made, not on his own behalf but on behalf of others—that it really is crucial that we deliver on the commitment that wounded service personnel, for their subsequent treatment further down the line, do indeed get priority in NHS hospitals?
If we are to honour the military covenant fully, it is essential for those who are injured in action to receive the acute care that they require—and I think the whole House would acknowledge that the level of acute care given to our armed forces personnel is of a world-beating standard—but there are often complaints about the follow-up care, chronic care, continuity of care and collocation of care that are also essential. We will need to take all those issues into account. Along with the Department of Health, we are trying to establish where we can collocate care so that individuals need not travel to six, seven or even eight places to receive the full range of care that the complexity of their injuries may require, as has happened in recent years.
The Secretary of State is aware of the interest in veterans’ affairs taken by my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd. He is attending a conference on the subject at present, and was unfortunately unable to be here for the statement.
Many, if not all, of the issues involved in the covenant are devolved, and the re-elected Scottish National party Government have an excellent record of delivering for veterans in Scotland. Given the realities of devolution, why did it not even warrant a mention in the statement?
When the hon. Gentleman reads the documents, he will see that there is ample mention of it. This involves all forms of government in the United Kingdom. I fully understand the position of the right hon. Gentleman and the interest that he normally shows in these matters. We want to work with the devolved Assemblies to ensure that provision that is based in England today is available to all service personnel, families and veterans throughout the United Kingdom. Individuals who serve under the Crown deserve to be treated equally, and we will want to work very closely with the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments to ensure that equal benefits are received throughout the UK.
One of the problems with the whole concept of putting rights into law is the potential for a constitutional clash between the Westminster Government and the devolved Governments, and we sought to avoid that. There was no basic disagreement with the RBL; it was simply a question of how we could best put what it wanted into law.
I welcome the historic step that the Government are taking today to honour the unique commitment that British service personnel offer our nation. However, may I press the Secretary of State to tell us what steps will be open to service personnel to redress the position when we fall short of the terms of the covenant?
I hope that there will be no shortfall in our ability to honour the covenant, but the whole point of making the process as transparent as possible is to ensure that any future Government are fully exposed if they do not honour it. We are involving the external reference group to ensure that there is external pressure for that to happen, and to ensure that it is not simply a Whitehall-driven process. Ultimately, it will be for Members of Parliament in the first instance, representing their constituents in the armed forces, to detect whether, in their view, the Government have in any way fallen short of the standards that we have set ourselves today.
For decades many members of the armed forces have felt betrayed by Governments of all colours, so this is not a party-political issue. I am glad that the Secretary of State is going to take a line from Midlothian council, which has always held priority housing for those who leave the armed forces. I welcome his conversion, and the fact that he has finally taken that need on board. However, may I raise the issue of post-traumatic stress, with which many of us are only just coming to terms? Would it not be helpful for everyone who leaves the armed forces to be given an annual check-up, all the way to the grave? Post-traumatic stress can arise five, 10, 15 or 20 years after the event.
Again, I note the ingenuity of Members. The hon. Gentleman has raised two very good points.
There are clearly instances of best practice from which we can learn in relation to access to public housing. When it comes to access to the private housing sector, one of the problems is an inability to acquire a mortgage. That applies particularly to those who have served overseas and have been out of the country for some time. We are examining ways of dealing with the problem, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government is looking into it at the moment.
The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder is crucial. One reason why we have introduced routine mental health screening into the medical examinations of those about to leave the armed forces is to try to identify best those who may require additional follow-up. As scientific and medical evidence develops to help us with profiling, we may well be able to have programmes that allow follow-up for a longer time. We are working closely with the United States on building up a profiling picture. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that this may take some years to develop, at least in terms of the symptomatology, so we will need to look at ways of better predicting the effects, and identifying and following up individuals. We might have to identify them, because self-identification in mental illness is notoriously difficult.
I very much welcome the establishment of the military covenant in law. On
I agree with my hon. Friend, who, of course, has considerable experience in this area. First, I would echo the point made by Mr Hamilton about mental health care being one aspect of long-term care. The Government have given a high priority to that, because the invisible wounds of war are just as damaging as those that we can see. I do not put the blame on any one particular Government, but as a society we have been too slow to recognise that. We are increasingly recognising it now, however. Secondly, medical care will improve in certain areas. Prosthetics, for instance, have come a long way. Individuals are having to be reassessed in the NHS, given the new capabilities that prosthetics may bring and the new lease of life that they may give to individuals, including those with long-term injuries relating to service in the armed forces.
As I have already said, changes in respect of RPI and CPI apply across the public sector. Many of us would like not to have to make such changes at all—we have no desire to do so—but we were forced to make them because of the financial situation that we inherited. I understand the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it does not matter how much Opposition Members mean it, because there is no money to do the things that they want. Do they propose that we raise more taxes or borrow more money to fill the hole? If the Labour party is serious, it will fulfil what it was asked to do by its own leadership, which is not to make any spending pledges whatsoever, unless agreed by the party’s leadership. So I ask, is the reversal of the CPI/RPI change now Labour policy?
I welcome the statement and the leadership offered by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. I recognise the contributions by groups such as my local British Legion, which has sought to secure the covenant through its very active campaign. Does the Secretary of State agree that the incorporation of the covenant in law begins to address the gross betrayal of our British forces and their families by the previous Labour Government, who sent troops into war without the right equipment?
Some of those equipment issues from the past have been well rehearsed in the House and the House has decided where some of the blame lies. It is very important that we try to take today’s announcement in a non-partisan way and to build on it with a national consensus, because the public out there will welcome this irrespective of their politics and, indeed, even if they have no politics at all. The way in which this has been done, the compromise that we have reached on the complex difficulties that we face and the balance that we have tried to obtain will be welcomed by the service charities and the armed forces. I think that the whole country should take pride in the fact that we are, as a nation, putting a covenant between the whole nation and the armed forces into law in this way.
Recalling the second Iraq war and the Helmand incursion, should not the first line of the covenant read, “This Government will never put in deadly peril the lives of our armed services in conflicts that are avoidable or vainglorious”?
I know well the hon. Gentleman’s reservations about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly about any conflict imaginable in any part of the globe. Our armed forces are primarily there to protect the security of this nation. We are very fortunate that we have people willing to volunteer—every one of them is a volunteer—to put life and limb at risk for our security. Governments do not lightly send our armed forces into combat; they are answerable for their actions in this House of Commons and to the wider electorate. We should be grateful that this country still has those who are willing to make those sacrifices for us.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and look forward, with interest, to reading his proposals for improving the mental welfare services for ex-servicemen in this country. May I just ask him to make an awkward clarification? I am sure that he has an answer to this question. This military covenant strengthening is clearly intended to bring an uplift to the services available to our veterans and this will have to be funded from within the defence budget. Will the extra resources have to be found from within the existing defence budget or can he assure us that they will be provided by the nation as a whole, by the Exchequer?
My hon. Friend, again, makes an important point. Some of the costs will be met directly by the Treasury, for example those relating to council tax relief. Some money, such as the funding above the pupil premium, comes from the funding we earmarked within planning round 11, and some comes from other Departments, for example, the Department of Health. It is very important that we recognise that the military covenant is not just an issue that relates to the Government, the nation and the armed forces; it is also a cross-government effort, which does not begin and end inside the Ministry of Defence.
Can the Secretary of State clarify something? The council tax relief increase from 25% to 50% applies to second homes where service personnel live in MOD properties or in their first homes where they are living in other properties, but is that mandatory for all local authorities in England or does this apply in England, Wales and Scotland? Would it not be better to make the figure 100%, because it is up to the local authority to make that provision if it wants to, and some local authorities in Wales are now doing that?
As I said, the increase will go to all those who currently get the 25% discount and they will now be eligible for the 50% rate. I am sure that some councils may wish to go further but, given the current financial environment, I doubt very much that they will be able to do so.
Many of the details of the covenant will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, which is home to more than 10,500 serving armed forces personnel, including Sergeant Gavin Harvey, who two years ago lost substantially his entire lower body in a land mine incident. He is very concerned about the future supply of not only prosthetics, but wheelchairs and mobility aids. Can the Secretary of State assure me that that will be included in the review and can he tell us when we might expect to hear more about that later this year?
I am aware of the individual mentioned by my hon. Friend. Some extraordinarily severe injuries have been sustained by our armed forces personnel and it is testament to the skill of the medical profession that many of our personnel have been able to survive their injuries. Those of us who have visited Selly Oak, for example, will have marvelled at the medical capabilities and at what they have been able to do. There is, however, another side to this medical skill, which means that more people are able to survive these injuries than previously would have been the case and there are more severe disabilities as a consequence than there would otherwise have been. Part of the work we have been doing not just with prosthetics but with wider health care is to tackle that. This is emerging science and the House must understand that this is cutting-edge medical science. We, along with other countries such as the United States, are pioneering medical techniques to enable those individuals to live as full a life as medical science makes possible.
I am sure it was a slip in the heat of the moment, but in responding to the question from my hon. and gallant Friend Dan Jarvis during Question Time, the Secretary of State neglected to guarantee that reservists would get continuation of employment and that that would not be considered as red tape by the Government. May I give him another opportunity to do so?
I was not evading the question; I said that it is part of the wider review of reservists. My hon. Friend Mr Brazier is a member of that review and we want to ensure that we consider all the issues relating to reserves—the basing, the functions, the funding, the relationship with the regular forces and so on—including how issues of employment are tackled. We have been very keen to look at the experience in this country and overseas and will make an announcement, I would have thought, before the summer recess.
I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend. With about 2,800 veterans currently in UK prisons, to date support for our armed forces veterans has clearly been inadequate. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that enshrining the covenant in law will give our brave servicemen and women far more support both during and after their service, which will lead to far fewer of our brave veterans winding up in prison?
As my hon. Friend knows, there is considerable debate about the numbers of the armed forces as a proportion of the prison population. I think we can say that for many of those who end up in prison, particularly those who have been homeless or who have been subject to drug and alcohol problems, it represents a failure of other systems to provide a suitable safety net. As a country, when we consider issues such as mental health, we need to ensure that we do not allow those who are potentially vulnerable to fail to be picked up by the services that might prevent them from ending up in an inappropriate institution such as prison.
Tributes have rightly been given to the Royal British Legion, whose UK headquarters are in my constituency, for its fantastic campaign, which has led us to today. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the implication of his announcement on the covenant is that those leaving active service and leaving the services will be entitled thereafter to housing, if they do not have it, and to prompt and continuing health care, particularly mental health care, from the time that they are discharged?
We cannot give guarantees on housing because the Government do not make direct provision of housing, but we will want to work with local authorities to ensure that the aspirations set out today are put forward in as practical a way as possible. On health care, I have made the point on innumerable occasions. I am pleased that so many points have been made about mental health care, because 10 years ago they would not have been made in this House of Commons; there is a shifting societal view of it. It is very important that we get timely health care. As I said in response to Mr Hamilton, it is important that we try to profile, where we can, those who might be the most vulnerable so that we can give them the closest follow up. As is true in mental health generally, those who suffer from mental health problems might be the last to recognise that it is a problem and therefore be one of the last to present. We must try to ensure that we have a mechanism to identify them rather than depending purely on self-identification.
As a former soldier, I fully support the military covenant, but does the Secretary of State have any doubts about whether enshrining even the principles in law could lead to bitter disputes in court with devastating consequences for the relationship between Government and the armed services?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that is key to this whole debate. As I said earlier, we had a duty to try to get a balance between, on the one hand, wanting to preserve the chain of command and, on the other, the legitimate interests of the wider service community, charities and the public. We did not, therefore, want to create a set of rights that could have had the armed forces tied up in European courts for ever, which would have been an utterly inappropriate use of their time and funding, but we did want to set out in the law of this land the principles about where there should be no disadvantage and where there should be special care, if required. It will be against those principles that future Secretaries of State for Defence will be judged and I think the balance is appropriate. We have looked at all the legal implications in great detail over a very long time and we believe that this is an appropriate balance to strike.
As another former serving soldier, may I, too, warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today, particularly the very clear message that this is about more than just the MOD? Does he agree that if we are going to make this work, it might be time to review the way in which other Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, manage the way in which they deal with soldiers, veterans and reservists?
I must tell my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister has made it very clear to all my Cabinet colleagues that the military covenant does not apply just to the Ministry of Defence, but is entirely a cross-departmental responsibility. All members of the Government—indeed, all Members of Parliament—have a duty to ensure that what we are putting in place today is applied equally across all parts of the United Kingdom and across all parts of government.
Or may have committed suicide after that campaign than died in active service. Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—[ Interruption. ] These are very serious matters. Has my right hon. Friend had time to see the figures from Combat Stress indicating that further to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 48,000 veterans may suffer from some form of mental health problem in the years ahead? May I say that his commitment today that the unseen scars of war will be treated as seriously as the physical ones is to be warmly welcomed?
I used those figures myself in opposition, but may I say to my hon. Friend that there is dubiety about the actual numbers? However, let us cast that aside because the important point is that if any of those people who suffer from mental illness ultimately commit suicide, we have failed them. It is therefore very important to try to identify individuals who could be at risk, because the loss of someone’s life, at their own hand, after they have survived the rigours of combat is a tragedy not just for that individual but collectively for the country.
I do not wish to denigrate the legal profession as a whole, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a certain type of lawyer who specialises in persuading victims to bring court cases that otherwise might not, and indeed ought not, be brought? Is he satisfied that there will be enough safeguards to prevent that sort of abuse from happening as a result of putting into law the military covenant?
I have a sister who is a doctor and a sister who is a lawyer. My father used to say we had the best of both worlds—the licence to steal and the licence to kill—but I have never taken such caricatures as necessarily being the honest truth. I will not be tempted down the road where my hon. Friend tries to tempt me, except to say that in striking a balance in the legislation, we have sought to minimise the risk of the kind of behaviour that he mentions, while trying to ensure that we honour our responsibilities and give a sound legal basis to the covenant that we are putting forward.
The coalition Government can take pride in the fact that in our first year we have introduced legislation to enshrine in law the armed forces covenant. I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for what it has done. I am delighted that the Secretary of State has told us that in Cabinet there is cross-departmental support. With that in mind, will he give me an assurance that the need for funding to improve and modernise the family accommodation of our brave service personnel will be put on the agenda?
I am grateful to acknowledge the long-running support that my hon. Friend has given on these matters. He will be extremely pleased today that we have managed to achieve what we have. With regard to the speed at which we can make some of the improvements to accommodation, we are limited by budgetary constraints. We will want to go as quickly as we can. We fully recognise, as we have set out, what our responsibilities are. We also have, as I hate to point out, a wider responsibility to be fiscally conservative, to bring our budget back within affordability and to restore the nation’s economy to health, because that gives us the ability in the longer term to make the investments that we all want to see.
In Harlow recently, we had a special service to remember those fallen since the second world war, particularly in recent years. Their names are inscribed on the memorial. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the military covenant helps facilitate the remembrance of soldiers fallen since the second world war, and that some of the grant that he mentioned is used to help communities put those names on memorials throughout the country?
I refer my hon. Friend to the community covenant grant that I mentioned. I will want to see whether we can widen the scope of that to include the sort of issue that he mentions. The remembrance of those who have given their lives for the security of this country should not be kept only within the generation in which it occurred. We should constantly remind every generation of it.
Many thousands of both serving and retired military personnel and their families in my constituency will welcome today’s statement. Among the several thousand service men and women serving at Blandford Camp are a number of soldiers from Commonwealth countries who have enlisted in the British Army. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the military covenant includes soldiers and their families from Commonwealth countries?
In so far as they have the same rights as anyone else to access public facilities, yes, it will. For some there are complex issues relating to nationality, but as I said, we are setting out today a cross-governmental arrangement. I want to consider some of the complex issues relating to those from Commonwealth countries. In particular, I want to ensure that we fully recognise that those who make the sacrifices share in the benefits.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he indicate his willingness to examine how compensation is paid to members of the armed forces who are injured? Currently, many of those who are badly injured and rightly receive many hundreds of thousands of pounds are at great risk of exploitation when inadequate or no financial advice is available on how to invest that money so that it is available in the years ahead. What relevance has today’s announcement for that?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I will undertake to have some work begun in the Department to see where we are on that subject. It is obviously crucial for the long-term welfare of those who receive such payments that money is invested in a wise way that can maximise return over the longest period. He raises a crucial point and I will ensure that further work is done. I will report back to the House on that on a future occasion.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of the practical measures to give effect to the armed forces covenant. Is he aware that such varied voices as those of the Adjutant-General, the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, the Second Sea Lord and Bryn Parry of Help for Heroes all made it clear in evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee that they much prefer a flexible covenant of principles enshrined in law, rather than a set of prescriptive measures that might see our soldiers marching off to court as regularly as they march off to war? Does my right hon. Friend not think that their measured and sensible approach is the right one?
Indeed I do; that is reflected in the balance we have set out today. There was something of a false debate between the Government and the service charities, especially the Royal British Legion, but they were always very clear that the outcome would be right for our armed forces. It was simply a debate about the best mechanism to achieve that. I think that we have achieved that balance properly in the proposals we have set out today. I hope that it will be widely welcomed by the service charities, which have given a great deal of impetus to the campaign and deserve credit for today’s outcome.
What the Secretary of State has said today will be welcomed by many, particularly those in the Nelson and district branch of the Royal British Legion, whom he met and discussed the matter with when he last visited Pendle. Of particular concern to many is how the Government can help servicemen and veterans with housing. I was wondering whether he could say more on that today.
For obvious reasons, I well remember that visit to Pendle. As I have said in response to earlier questions, we are looking at how we can best improve access to housing, in the public sector by looking at best practice across the country in conjunction with local government, and by considering how we can remove some of the impediments that armed forces personnel might face in trying to get on to the housing ladder in the private sector. It is important that they can share in the prosperity of a property-owning democracy.
We have an unusually high proportion of veterans in the Medway towns, and one of our concerns is that too often they fall between the cracks when it comes to mental health services. I am delighted by what the Secretary of State has said about plans for proactive follow-up for cases of post-traumatic stress disorder; it might help those who might not otherwise present with symptoms. Is there more we can do to work with GPs to ensure that they consider whether someone coming into the surgery might be ex-forces and suffering from PTSD?
My hon. Friend makes a useful point. We have, of course, been trialling our new website and are looking at examinations at the point when personnel leave the armed forces. One issue that I failed to mention and ought to have done is the need to get better information to GPs. I remember practising as a GP and having absolutely no education—[ Interruption. ] I meant in the specific, not the generic. I remember that when I first worked with the armed forces as a doctor it came as a surprise to me how little specific training I had had on their particular needs. I hope that that is now being redressed by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners, because if the doctors do not know what to look for, they are far more likely to miss the problems.
Today has been a great day for parliamentary scrutiny. We had an Armed Forces Bill before Parliament. We had a campaign by the Royal British Legion. We had MPs on both sides of the House concerned about the issue. We had a Secretary of State and a Prime Minister who were willing to listen. This seems to me to be the way forward. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will accept the amendment to the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, or will he bring forward his own amendment?
The Secretary of State and his ministerial team should be congratulated, as should the Royal British Legion on its role, but, if an authority does not meet its obligations under today’s statement and the subsequent legislation, what consideration has the Secretary of State given to a swift and informal process at the most basic level to ensure consistency throughout the United Kingdom and redress?
I understand why my hon. Friend makes the point that he does, but first it will be up to the Government to try to persuade the other elements of government—local government and the devolved Governments—to make the same provision as we want to set out in the covenant; and then, ultimately, it will be up to the public, as they are part of the covenant, to ensure that whatever the level of government, it lives up to its promises. I hope that one of the ways in which the British public will honour the covenant is by putting pressure on those who deliver services to ensure that they deliver them fairly, throughout the country and throughout government, for all service personnel, their families and veterans.
I welcome the statement and, in particular, the comments on community-related issues. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that local authorities and community groups work with local legions to find appropriate solutions for our veterans?
Again, that is one of the essential parts of the covenant. It is not just about what government does for the armed forces, but about what the nation does for our armed forces. That applies to central Government, to devolved Government, to local government, to no government at all, to charities and to the private sector. Everybody, including individuals, has a role to play, and I hope that if one thing unifies the House and the country it is that we are making a pact in law, and setting it out today in this House of Commons, between all of the country and the armed forces—something that never again should be broken.