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It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Trevelyan in this debate. I welcome the publication of the annual report on the military covenant, but Members will not be surprised if I raise, as I have done on previous occasions, concerns about the implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland. May I commend the Minister at this stage? I know that he is totally committed to his work as Minister with responsibility for veterans, dealing with the military covenant. We appreciate the interest he has shown in Northern Ireland and look forward to further visits from him in the near future.
May I draw the attention of the House to a letter I received recently pursuant to a case that I had been dealing with on behalf of a constituent, who is a veteran of our armed forces? I had written to the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, who is now the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, having replaced the former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. In her response, she said:
“As you are aware the Armed Forces Covenant is not in place here and ex Military personnel therefore do not have the 13YJ code (the code which identifies someone with a history of military service) added to their clinical records for GP referrals.
The Armed Forces Covenant has been adopted by England, Scotland and Wales”— note, not Northern Ireland—
“to provide equal access to healthcare where it can be linked to military service, serving personnel, their families and those who leave the Military Forces. The Covenant has not been adopted here as health care arrangements are delivered on an equitable basis to all members of the community.”
That highlights the extent of the problem we are dealing with in Northern Ireland. I do not include the Minister in this, but I have to say that some associated with the Ministry of Defence are in denial about that problem. The reality is that after more than 30 years of Operation Banner, we have literally tens of thousands of veterans living in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I would argue that in our region we probably have a higher proportion of veterans than most other regions of the United Kingdom.
It is worth bearing it in mind that many of those veterans served with the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service in the communities in which they lived. That brought with it added pressure for them and their families, to the extent that recent reports have indicated that there is a very high incidence of post-conflict trauma among veterans in Northern Ireland.
The University of Ulster is undertaking a study to try to evaluate the level of mental illness among veterans in Northern Ireland, but it is known to be quite high. We are faced with a problem whereby veterans seeking help for their mental illness are being told by the Department of Health, “We are sorry, but if you are a veteran in Northern Ireland, the armed forces covenant does not apply here, so we cannot deal with you on the terms on which you might be dealt with by the health service in England, Scotland or Wales.”
The armed forces covenant does not give preferential treatment to veterans. It merely seeks to ensure that those veterans are not disadvantaged by virtue of their military service. And yet the Minister hides behind the notion that applying the military covenant in Northern Ireland would somehow undermine the basis of equality that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We in this House, and the Department, need to do more to challenge this muddled thinking and this wrong approach.
The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has investigated the matter. In evidence to the Committee, Ministers said that there is not a problem, and that section 75 applies but does not interfere with the implementation of the covenant. But here we have, in black and white, from the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland a clear demonstration of the prevailing attitude that the armed forces covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland, and that it has not been adopted there. Yet my understanding is very clear: the armed forces covenant applies across the United Kingdom and ought to be fully implemented across the UK. It is wrong that veterans in Northern Ireland are suffering from a lack of recognition of the covenant, and we need to do something to put that right.
In evidence to the Defence Committee, the Minister stated in response to my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson that it was the view of the Department that the military covenant in Northern Ireland was being implemented to the extent that some 83% or 84% of its provisions applied there. I cannot evaluate that assessment, but, given that access to healthcare is such an enormously important element of the covenant, the only thing I would say to the Minister and the Department is that, if the Department of Health in Northern Ireland says, “Sorry, the covenant does not apply”, I am not convinced that the 84% figure for the proportion of the covenant being implemented in Northern Ireland is an accurate reflection of where we really are.