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Armed Forces Covenant

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Labour, Nottingham South 12:00 am, 7th November 2016

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the provisions of the armed forces covenant are being implemented effectively in the UK.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The implementation of the covenant is overseen by the covenant reference group, chaired by the Cabinet Office. Next month’s annual report will detail that considerable progress has been made across Government and with the wider public, private and third sectors, including on key areas of education, healthcare, accommodation and access to commercial services.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Labour, Nottingham South

I thank the Minister for that answer. The head of the forces charity SSAFA has warned that the armed forces covenant

“provides excellent guidance but there is no guarantee of enforcement.”

Forces families often find themselves in real difficulty when seeking housing or school places. In this week, when our thoughts are with those forces families who have made the ultimate sacrifice, what are the Government doing to make it clear to service providers that the guarantees contained in the covenant are legal duties, not just optional extras?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady is right to raise that, because it was this Government who enshrined the covenant in law. We have made substantial progress in recent years, not least through the £22.5 million that has now been spent on the service pupil premium or the £20 million that has been invested in veterans’ accommodation. However, I do recognise that more needs to be done, and I feel that I have a duty to ensure that local authorities across the country are doing their bit to enforce the covenant.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Does the Minister agree that the recent report published by the Royal United Services Institute on the corporate covenant is a really important step in highlighting where the Government need to do much more to reach out to a much wider group of companies to get them to support those who are leaving the service and those families who need support.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Of course we recognise that the covenant is very much a partnership between Government, the third sector and the corporate world, which is why I was delighted to see that we recently passed 1,200 signatures on the corporate covenant.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see the armed forces covenant enforced in Northern Ireland? What steps has his Department taken in the interim to work with veterans’ services in Northern Ireland until the scheme is fully implemented?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Of course, we have unique challenges in Northern Ireland, but I am pleased to report that we estimate that 93% of covenant issues are being enforced in Northern Ireland. Clearly, we need to do better, and that is going to be my focus for the year.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence)

While there are many examples of good practice across the United Kingdom, it is clear that not everyone in the forces community is experiencing the benefits of the covenant. A recent report by the Local Government Association found that nearly 40% of those who served in the armed forces felt that their service left them disadvantaged. What are the Government doing to ensure that the covenant becomes a reality for every serviceman and woman across the country?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and I encourage him to look at the last four covenant reports, which detail the progress we have made over the last four years. However, his point is well made, and it is precisely why, earlier this year, I commissioned the Forces in Minds Trust to do a review so that we can ensure that best practice from the various local authorities across the United Kingdom is shared.