The armed forces covenant is one of this Government’s most important priorities; I will endeavour to drive it forward with the same passion and commitment as my predecessors. This year sees the implementation of a permanent commitment to the covenant through a £10 million per annum fund. Over the coming months, we will focus on how best to communicate the aims of the covenant and continue to work with industry and the voluntary sector to ensure that it goes from strength to strength.
Ensuring that our servicemen and women can buy their own homes is, rightly, a priority for this Government. How many people have benefited from the Forces Help to Buy scheme so far?
Forces Help to Buy gives service personnel the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, not only giving them and their families stability during their military service but helping them form a foundation for future life. I am pleased to say that since April 2014, more than 3,500 service personnel have received funds totalling £53.7 million. A further 1,800 service personnel have had their applications approved fully and are awaiting the completion of property purchases.
More than 20,000 skilled men and women, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, leave the armed forces each year. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that local skills and economic strategies work effectively to realise the full potential of that highly trained, well disciplined and adaptable workforce?
All those who join as junior ranks receive key skills training and complete professional apprenticeships. All personnel can access routes to higher and further education, are provided with some financial assistance and are given time to study. All personnel leaving the armed forces—about 20,000 a year—are entitled to resettlement provision to help their transition into future careers.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is rightly proud that Oxfordshire has led the way in delivering on our community covenant by being the first local authority to change its schools admissions policy to make it easier for the children of service families to secure school places by using base addresses before their postings. I know that she has played a key role in driving that forward, and I thank her for it.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that support for our veterans is fundamental to the armed forces covenant. There are 500,000 veterans in the north-west of England, many of them in my constituency, but not one penny of the £40 million veterans accommodation fund went to any organisation in the north-west. Will he ensure that funding for veterans organisations is fairly distributed across the country, and that there are mechanisms in place to do so?
Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that over the past three years, some £150 million of LIBOR funding has been used for the military covenant. I am determined that that should be spread equally across the country, and I will look into the matter that he has raised.
I too welcome the Minister to his post, and I welcome his support for the armed forces covenant, but does the rhetoric match the reality on the ground? My local authority in Wigan is investing £500,000 to provide a veterans hub to create a single point of contact for veterans, in recognition of the current, confusing patchwork of provision. What is the Minister doing to ensure that such good practice is recognised and resourced throughout the country, ending the current postcode lottery for veterans?
The hon. Lady will be aware that all local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant. In my new role, I am very keen to ensure that best practice is spread across the United Kingdom. This is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, other Government Departments. If the hon. Lady feels that her own local authority has best practices that can be shared more widely, I shall be delighted to talk to her.
The Royal British Legion was recently awarded £10 million LIBOR funding over five years to address long-term hearing issues. Work has already started with key stakeholders, and the Legion aims to launch the fund in early autumn. From summer 2015, the MOD will introduce new hearing protection measures for UK armed forces personnel, which will reduce the number of veterans with service-attributable hearing issues.