I beg to move,
That this House
recognises the valuable contribution made by men and women from Northern Ireland to our armed forces, including some of the best recruited Reserve Units in the UK and reaffirms its commitment to ensure that the Armed Forces Covenant is fully implemented in Northern Ireland.
I am delighted to move the motion in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party. As a party, we are proud of the contribution made by the men and women from Northern Ireland who have served the United Kingdom in many theatres of conflict across the globe and, indeed, especially in Northern Ireland itself. We salute their sacrifice, but also the sacrifice of all members of our armed forces, who courageously serve this country in many ways and in many parts of the world.
It is estimated that some 300,000 military personnel were deployed in Northern Ireland in the course of Operation Banner, which was the longest-running military operation in the history of the British Army. A significant proportion of the veterans who served in Operation Banner currently reside in Northern Ireland. That includes in the region of between 56,000 and 60,000 who served with the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service battalions, as well as many other units with which Ulster men and women served in the course of Operation Banner.
The Ulster University is currently conducting a study to identify the number of veterans resident in Northern Ireland and requiring welfare support. The initial reports published by the research team at the university make interesting reading, and I commend them to Ministers and the team at the Ministry of Defence. The reports and the research undertaken by the Ulster University provide an interesting insight into the needs of veterans in Northern Ireland and seek to quantify the extent of that need.
In addition to Operation Banner, we have an increasing proportion of armed forces personnel from Northern Ireland who have been deployed on operations in other parts of the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and other places such as Mali, Sierra Leone and so on. They include many members of our reserve units in Northern Ireland. I note that the Minister responsible for reserves, Mark Lancaster, is in his place. I pay tribute to our reserve forces in Northern Ireland. We have some of the best-recruited reserve units in the United Kingdom, such as the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, which is headquartered at Thiepval barracks in my constituency in Lisburn. It is one of the best-recruited infantry reserve units in the United Kingdom. We have HMS Hibernia, following a proud tradition of Ulster men and women who have served with the Royal Navy, which is also based at Thiepval barracks in my constituency, and 502 Ulster Squadron of the Royal Air Force, located at Aldergrove, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Paul Girvan. We will soon be joining them in celebrating the centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force.
We commend the men and women who have given up valuable time to serve in our reserve units and those who leave their families to go and serve with the regular armed forces, in many parts of the world.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share the painful disappointment that I feel that there are so few Members on the Government and Opposition Benches this afternoon for this important debate, bearing in mind the enormous sacrifice made by so many members of the British Army, particularly those in the UDR, who were often part-time farmers who gave their lives and paid the ultimate sacrifice during the troubles in Northern Ireland? I personally have to say how disappointed I am that there is not a better turnout for today’s debate.
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. It is my experience in this House—this is my 21st year as a Member of Parliament—that, across the House of Commons, I find nothing but respect for our armed forces, especially those who have served in Northern Ireland. When I have attended events here in Parliament where we have remembered that sacrifice, I have always been struck by the depth of the gratitude felt by right hon. and hon. Members for that service, notwithstanding the disappointment that the hon. Lady feels at the attendance today, although that is not untypical for debates here of any kind. I do not honestly believe that it reflects any disrespect on the part of this House for the men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces.
A recent report published by the World Health Organisation on post-traumatic stress disorder found that Northern Ireland has a higher incidence of PTSD and trauma-related illnesses than other conflict-related country in the world. That includes places such as Lebanon and Israel. Remarkably, the study found that nearly 40% of people in Northern Ireland had been involved in some kind of conflict-related traumatic incident. The survey estimated that violence had been a distinct cause of mental health problems for about 18,000 people in Northern Ireland.
Against that backdrop, the health and social care system in Northern Ireland has sought to provide support and treatment service to people with mental health problems, and especially ones linked to trauma, but I have to say that it is struggling to cope with the pressures. As Ministers will know, it is often the case for service personnel that PTSD does not really make an impact for several years or more after the original incident. We are therefore seeing a pattern in Northern Ireland now of those who served in our armed forces developing mental health problems in later life, as well as physical injury-related medical problems, and that is putting real pressure on local health services. We feel that that needs to be more closely addressed.
Of course, that is not unique to the armed forces—the civilian population in Northern Ireland suffered dreadfully, and there is ample evidence of a high incidence of post-conflict trauma among the civilian population—but it highlights why the armed forces covenant is very important in Northern Ireland. It is perhaps more important in Northern Ireland than in some other parts of the United Kingdom, because it is essential that the men and women who have served our nation get the support that they require.
I am concerned, as a Member of Parliament, that I am dealing on a regular basis with veterans of Operation Banner who find themselves in trouble with the law because they have developed post-traumatic mental health problems and sadly get caught up in behavioural difficulties that perhaps are not entirely of their making but often result in them falling foul of the law. That is an increasing phenomenon, yet our mental health services do not appear to be adequately resourced to cope with it.
We feel that there is a need to do something. I know that my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been pressing for a specialist and properly resourced unit to address some of the issues linked to mental health and what we call the troubles in Northern Ireland. Those who serve in the armed forces in particular need that support, and they are not getting the level of support that they require, so that is an important element of the armed forces covenant.
The current arrangements in Northern Ireland tend to vary from those in other parts of the United Kingdom, partly due to the constraints of our peculiar form of devolved government in Northern Ireland. The point is this: until just over a year ago, we had a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland comprising two main parties, one being the Democratic Unionist party and the other being Sinn Féin, and frankly, Sinn Féin has a difficulty when it comes to the armed forces covenant. It has declined to recognise the covenant and the idea that it has a responsibility for implementing the covenant, and its Ministers in charge of Departments have at times resisted efforts on our part to see the very modest objectives of the covenant implemented in Northern Ireland.
I remind the House that the core principle of the covenant is to ensure that those who have served in our armed forces are not disadvantaged by virtue of that service when it comes to the provision of healthcare, housing, education and so on. It is not that they are given special treatment or that they are advantaged over the rest of society, but that they are not disadvantaged. Yet the attitude of Sinn Féin to our armed forces means that, frankly, they are being disadvantaged in Northern Ireland. They are not getting the support that they deserve and require when it comes to healthcare treatment.
I have recently dealt with cases in my own constituency of those who have served in the armed forces, but who are languishing on waiting lists—ever increasing waiting lists, sadly, in Northern Ireland—and cannot get access to treatment. When they seek to get treatment that could be available to them in other parts of the United Kingdom, they are told, “We will not fund your travel, and we will not fund your accommodation to have this treatment in Birmingham or Manchester”. They would be entitled to receive such treatment if they lived in, for example, the constituency of my colleague Conor McGinn. We believe that this issue needs to be addressed.
Armed forces veterans and their families are an integral part of the community that I represent, and many of them served in Northern Ireland. They would like better provision of services for them in St Helens, but they certainly feel that the colleagues whom they served alongside in Northern Ireland should not be disadvantaged just because of where they live. Like me, they fully support the armed forces covenant being extended fully to Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, if I may say so, for the interest that he has taken over the years in matters pertaining to Northern Ireland and those who have served in the armed forces, which is greatly appreciated.
I want to give credit where it is due, and in fairness to the Government, we do have the Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service in Northern Ireland. It was established specifically to provide welfare support to those who have served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service. It is a valuable aftercare service, and it is valued by those who have benefited from it. The difficulty we have is that the life of the Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service is approaching its end date, and there is no indication from the Government that it will be renewed.
I am concerned about that, because the service provides valuable support to those who have served. As I have said, somewhere in the region of 55,000 to 60,000 veterans have served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service battalions. If we lose the Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service and the joined-up approach it brings to providing welfare support to veterans, that will increase the deficit in support for veterans in Northern Ireland. I look to the Government—I am happy to meet Ministers to discuss the need for this again—to extend the work of the Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service beyond the end of the period for which it was originally established.
If I may, I will concentrate a little more on what I see as the kernel of the problem. When the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was passed by this House, and by this Parliament, following the Belfast agreement, section 75 dealt with the whole issue of equality in Northern Ireland. It identifies a number of groupings within our society in Northern Ireland where there should be the promotion of equality of opportunity, including
“between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group…between men and women…between persons with a disability and persons without;
and…between persons with dependants and persons without.”
I would like to see veterans of our armed forces added as a specific group to the list of those for whom it is a requirement of every Department in Northern Ireland to promote equality of opportunity. That would at least move us in the right direction of addressing the deficit by identifying veterans as a group that ought to be provided with support when they need it, and it would compel Ministers in Departments in Northern Ireland to act in accordance with the objectives of the armed forces covenant.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one big benefit of adding that group to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is that it would introduce a requirement for every Government policy to be screened for its impact on that group? Whether it was an educational or health policy, there would be mandatory screening of its impact on armed forces personnel and their families. That would put policy makers across all Departments in a much more informed position to ensure that the needs of armed forces personnel and their families are integrated at the earliest possible opportunity in policy making.
I regard my hon. Friend pas an expert on this issue, having worked with her in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. She has devoted a lot of time and energy to promoting this kind of provision right across our society, not least in respect of veterans and the victims and survivors of our troubled past.
“The provisions of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prevents the Department of Health…and the Health and Social Care…sector in Northern Ireland in providing war veterans with priority over other individuals with respect to healthcare treatment.”
The use of the term “priority” refers, of course, to ensuring that people are not disadvantaged by virtue of their service, rather than to jumping the waiting list queue—that is not what veterans are asking for. What veterans are asking for is not to be disadvantaged by virtue of their service. It is evident even in the findings of the Defence Committee that that happens. This is something that has been identified not just by the Democratic Unionist party but by other colleagues in this House.
It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to allow me to intervene again. He will know very well that we have the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and, quite separately from that, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Will he take a few moments to explain to the House whether either, or indeed both, of those commissions support the extension of section 75 to include veterans? That would be very helpful for the House.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I have met the Equality Commission about this issue, but I am not sure that I have met the Human Rights Commission. As far as I am aware, they tend to take the view that they do not believe that section 75 presents the problem that we believe exists. However, I have ample evidence to support our view that it is an impediment, even if it is based on perception rather than reality. We believe that amending section 75 would clear up any question of ambiguity on this issue and offer clarity, as my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly said, on policy development across all Departments. We urge the Government to examine the potential to amend section 75 for that purpose.
“are disadvantaged more than their contemporaries elsewhere…
For example, Service families in the province are prevented from identifying themselves as such due to the security situation. This can cause difficulties for partners in explaining their career history to prospective employers and for Service children in obtaining the necessary support in schools”.
I have found that to be the case. I know that we have come a long way from the dark days of our troubled past, but there remains in Northern Ireland a culture of fear when it comes to openly identifying as someone who serves with the armed forces or as a family member of someone who does so. We cannot ignore that that is the reality of the experience of many serving personnel and veterans of the armed forces in Northern Ireland.
In addition, we believe there is substance in the call by many veterans in Northern Ireland for the establishment of a specialist facility to offer support to veterans. I commend, on behalf of my party, the excellent work of many of the military-linked charities in Northern Ireland. The Royal British Legion raises more money in Northern Ireland through its poppy appeal than any other region of the United Kingdom. We have SSAFA and Combat Stress, which does excellent work with limited resources while struggling to cope with the demand on its services. ABF the Soldiers’ Charity and others all do excellent work, but we would like to see a specialist facility established in Northern Ireland to bring together the resources needed to offer welfare support to veterans. That centre might be supported by some of the charities to which I have referred.
I want to make reference to community covenants in Northern Ireland. The Minister will know that they are an integral part of the armed forces covenant. I am delighted to report that since we last debated this issue in the House of Commons, a number of our new—not so new now, I suppose—district councils have adopted the community covenant, including Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council in my own constituency, and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. We welcome this development, because it means that local communities are now able to become more involved in providing support to the armed forces community and veterans. This will help to change the culture around our service personnel and veterans, and help them to see that the community is behind them, offering support at local government level.
I want to draw my remarks to a close by summarising what we would like the Government to do to ensure the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. I remind the House that this was part of the confidence and supply agreement between the Democratic Unionist party and the Conservative party. We identified full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland as a priority for the Government. In that context, I repeat our call for the aftercare service currently operated by the Royal Irish Regiment in Northern Ireland, a vital welfare support service for those who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment Home Service, to be extended, with consideration given to enhancing the level of support available to veterans in Northern Ireland who did not serve in the UDR and Royal Irish Home Service but who are equally deserving of welfare support.
Secondly, we want the Government to amend section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make specific provision for veterans of our armed forces to ensure that Government Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland have to have regard to the needs of veterans in bringing forward and implementing policies. We believe that in the absence of a devolved Government, that is the right way forward to ensure Government Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland are delivering for veterans, and have a requirement to take account of the needs of veterans in developing their policies.
One of the reports commissioned by the former Prime Minister, on transitioning for veterans, recommended that the Government appoint an armed forces champion in Northern Ireland. I know that this has been talked about, but we would like to see the proposal taken forward. We continue to encourage our local councils to adopt the community covenant. We hear so much about respect from our absent colleagues in Sinn Féin, but the councils in Northern Ireland dominated by Sinn Féin have yet to adopt the community covenant. I think that this disrespects the men and women from Northern Ireland who serve in our armed forces. If Sinn Féin wants to be taken seriously on respect, it could take this step. This does not require Stormont. It does not require an Assembly. It does not require an Executive. Every council on which Sinn Féin has a strong presence could, right now, bring forward a proposal to adopt the community covenant. That would show real respect to the men and women who serve in our armed forces.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it gives me great pleasure this afternoon to move this motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party.
Let me begin by congratulating Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson on his remarks. He is very much a champion for veterans in Northern Ireland, as indeed are so many of his party. His passion for this subject is well known and certainly came across in his speech. I join him in paying tribute to the enormous service and sacrifice of all the members of our armed forces from Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the absence of some colleagues. I say with the greatest respect to the shadow Labour Northern Ireland Ministers on the Front Bench that the absence of any shadow Defence Ministers has not gone unnoticed by the House. I am absolutely sure that that is not meant as any disrespect to the House. None the less it is a certain disappointment, considering the subject of our debate.
This year in particular, we remember the unparalleled contribution of Northern Ireland veterans to the spring offensive on the western front a century ago. We also recall their heroism in more recent operations, from the turmoil of the troubles to operations in Afghanistan and against Daesh extremists in Iraq. It has been my privilege to serve alongside many soldiers from Northern Ireland. Their passion and commitment has always been exemplary. As a reservist, I note with pride that more than twice as many Northern Irish citizens volunteer for the reserves, compared with the national average. For example, 502 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force was only founded in 2012 but has grown rapidly to a strength of some 130. Alongside the other regular and reserve units across Northern Ireland, they embody the potent mix of our armed forces.
We are determined to ensure that all those who serve with our armed forces have the support that they need, from whatever part of the United Kingdom they come. In discussing these issues, we should start by recognising that veterans who live in Northern Ireland are entitled to receive the same level of support from the Ministry of Defence as those who live in England, Scotland and Wales. If any member of the armed forces, past or present, or their family wishes to access our recently launched veterans’ gateway or our new freephone Combat Stress mental health helpline, they can do so.
As hon. Friends will be aware, the covenant is a promise not just from Defence, but from the whole Government on behalf of our nation. It is a recognition that every part of our nation has a moral obligation to help those who lay their lives on the line for us—a duty to guarantee that no one who is serving, or who has served, for this country should suffer any disadvantage as a result of that service in relation to the rest of society. The covenant, however, is not prescriptive. Its voluntary nature means that there has never been a one-size-fits-all approach. Different parts of the country take a different approach, tailored to their particular circumstances. In the case of Northern Ireland, the covenant is being applied in a manner that suits the unique nature of its circumstances.
Four years on from the last time that we debated this subject, I am pleased to see that progress has been made, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley acknowledged. I had the great pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland twice last year, when I was the Minister responsible for veterans and personnel. I saw at first hand the needs of the armed forces community there and the commendable work being undertaken on behalf of our personnel. I also had the enormous pleasure of attending Armed Forces Day in the constituency of Lady Hermon, who has also been a sterling champion for veterans and members of the armed forces for many a year in Bangor.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because it allows me to put on the record how delighted and proud we were that he was present in Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the United Kingdom, for Armed Forces Day, and we hope he has kept the instructions on how to get back, because although the Prime Minister only has time to come occasionally, it is wonderful when MOD Ministers come and remind everyone there that Northern Ireland is indeed an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Whether it is the work of the newly formed Veterans Support Office, operating in tandem with the Confederation of Service Charities to improve co-ordination between statutory bodies and service charities; the work of veterans champions, located in each of the 11 local authorities in Northern Ireland and linked with the VSO, tirelessly keeping the concerns of personnel in the community spotlight; or the work building on the bespoke aftercare service referred to by the right hon. Gentleman and provided by the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish, after referral from the Regional Personnel Recovery Unit within 38 (Irish) Brigade, there is plenty going on, but as we have heard, that is not to pretend that there are not still significant challenges to overcome.
When I visited Northern Ireland last March, I also had the sombre privilege of meeting some of those who had served during the troubles and, as a result, suffered from profound mental health issues. It is a reminder that for too many veterans living in Northern Ireland the scars of experience remain all too raw, as was equally highlighted by the right hon. Gentleman. That is why the MOD is supporting the Ulster University study, funded by the Forces in Mind Trust, into the needs of the Northern Ireland service community.
At the same time, we know that there is a need to continue raising awareness of the help already out there and, in particular, the different ways to access funding. We have already seen the LIBOR veterans fund providing £600,000 for the Somme nursing home in Belfast, and small grants have been made to support community integration projects and recreation facilities for the armed forces community in Northern Ireland. By comparison with other parts of the UK, however, applications for covenant funding remain low. That is why we have committed to providing £300,000 over five years to improve the capacity and capability of local authorities and other bodies in Northern Ireland to bid for covenant funding.
Some hon. Members will feel we should go further still—some might suggest it is time to introduce further statutory instruments to increase uptake—but although I am ready to listen to the arguments on a case-by-case basis, I would make the point that the problem is not about the lack of mechanisms. Let us not forget, as has been mentioned, that besides the instruments already in place, there is section 75. I listened very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said, but it is a cornerstone of the Belfast agreement. It is about more than the avoidance of discrimination; it charges public authorities to actively seek ways to encourage greater equality of opportunity and good relations. It is the view of the Government that the armed forces covenant does not contravene section 75. As was highlighted by the exchange between the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Down, that is also the view of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
For the purpose of clarity, my contention is not that the armed forces covenant contravenes section 75; it is that Government Departments in Northern Ireland believe that implementing the covenant may contravene it. I believe, therefore, that adding veterans as a clear category in section 75 would provide the clarity required to put this beyond doubt.
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman makes his point in a perfectly reasonable manner. He should be reassured that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was here when he made that point earlier, and I know that she took on board his comments. Perhaps, for now, he should seek some reassurance in that.
For me, even more important than the legal devices is the willingness of different groups across Northern Ireland—local authorities, businesses and the third sector—to come together and partner up. Slowly but surely, we are seeing that start to happen, but we need to accelerate the process and encourage different organisations to combine their resources and raise awareness of the help on offer. On that note, I should add that if Members are aware of any disadvantage suffered by members of the armed forces in Northern Ireland, they should report it to me or to colleagues in the Ministry of Defence so that we can attempt to address them quickly.
Let me reassure Members, and every single man and woman in our armed forces, that we are utterly committed and determined to ensure that all those who have contributed so much to our nation continue to receive the support that they deserve. In the four years since our last debate, much has already improved, but today’s debate will only spur us on in our quest to extend the protection of the covenant to all.
It is a great pleasure, and an honour, for me—as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—to respond to the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. The fact that members of our defence team are not present implies no disrespect on the part of the Labour Front Bench. They will be coming along shortly, and I am sure that they will take great interest in the debate.
Let me make clear at the outset that we are 100% in favour of the armed forces covenant. It is an excellent measure, introduced by the present Government; they built on the superb work done by the previous Labour Government, whose initial military covenant was passed in 2000. It is an important part of the way in which we as a country acknowledge the excellent service, and sacrifice, of members of our armed forces, not only in Northern Ireland but all over the world. The Labour party is four-square behind it, and four-square behind its equal application throughout the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, who opened the debate so eloquently, for his consistent support for armed forces members and veterans, and for consistently raising the question of potential anomalies between the application of the covenant in Northern Ireland and its application in the rest of the United Kingdom, which he has done with great vigour and sincerity.
While I acknowledge the Minister’s contention that there might be security and political reasons for the different application of the covenant in Northern Ireland—which echoed what has been said by previous Conservative Defence Ministers—the reality is that some differences are not just about security and politics. There are administrative and legal differences between the framework in Northern Ireland and the framework in the rest of the UK, and there is the question of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and which I hope to address later in my speech.
It should also be borne in mind that there is a particular set of problems for some representatives of the armed forces. There are Northern Ireland veterans who went through traumatic times during their service, often related to the nature of the areas in which they served and the process of locating and relocating in communities. There are about 150,000 veterans in Northern Ireland, and the levels of post-traumatic stress disorder are higher than the average. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley made some good points about the need for more support for the mental health of veterans. I am sure that the Minister heard what he said and will acknowledge that there should be better support, not just in Northern Ireland but across the board.
The central point of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, however, was that section 75 of the 1998 Act militates against the equal application of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. I know that the Government do not agree, and believe that the two are reconcilable. We share that view: we believe that it is possible for the covenant to be applied properly in Northern Ireland, and for that to be reconciled with the proper application of section 75.
Lady Hermon asked the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley whether the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission took the view that section 75 needed to be amended to be consistent with the proper application of the covenant. The answer of course is that they do not take that view. They viewed it perfectly possible for the two things to be applied, and I know that because I had a meeting only this afternoon with the chief executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to discuss that very point. I further cite the view of a former Defence Minister, Sir Mike Penning, who has said that 93% of the armed forces covenant is being applied equitably in Northern Ireland.
I finally point to the view of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, because although we have not debated this issue in the House for four years, there was an excellent report by the Committee under the chairmanship of Mr Robertson that went into this issue in great detail. It assessed it and took a huge amount of evidence from all the bodies involved, and came to the conclusion that there are undoubtedly areas where specific policies applied in Great Britain are not implemented in Northern Ireland for the reasons I have mentioned—the legal, administrative, political and security differences—and other areas where there should be improvements, such as around access to IVF and mental health. I would be intrigued to know whether the Minister has anything to say about the changes to IVF cycles and the availability of them to former armed forces veterans, because the Government have previously promised to look at Northern Ireland versus elsewhere in that regard.
I have been robust in this House in my defence of the Good Friday agreement, and very occasionally my interpretation of it is slightly different from that of my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland, but on this matter I am very clear: not only is there not a contradiction between the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement, but the logical outworking of the spirit of the Good Friday agreement is that veterans, their families and serving personnel are looked after.
Of course, and equality is central to the Good Friday agreement, which is why it is so important that the armed forces covenant, which makes it clear that no armed forces personnel or their families should be in any way disadvantaged by virtue of their currently serving in, or having been in, the armed forces, must not in any way be out of keeping with the application of equalities legislation—section 75 in particular—which is absolutely critical to the underpinning of the Good Friday agreement. That is why I am so pleased to hear the Minister repeat the Government’s view that they do not think there is any need to amend section 75 because they believe the two things are entirely reconcilable.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s obvious support—and, I take it, his party’s support—for the military covenant throughout the United Kingdom and indeed for community covenants, I am curious about what is said when he meets representatives of Sinn Féin; I am quite sure he meets Sinn Féin MPs when they visit Portcullis House and Westminster, although they do not take their seats here. How often has the hon. Gentleman raised the military covenant and urged Sinn Féin to show more respect for the military covenant and the community covenant?
I do, obviously, regularly meet all the political parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, and I have raised the question of the military covenant and the perception that insufficient respect is paid to members of the armed forces in the way in which the community covenant in particular is applied, and I will continue to raise that in my conversations with Sinn Féin.
In conclusion, I shall refer the House to a few important remarks made in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on this question. It had much greater opportunity to debate this issue at length. One of those important pieces of evidence came from the former Northern Ireland Executive Minister Edwin Poots MLA of the Democratic Unionist party. He said that he took the view that
“no one is supposed to be treated better, and indeed, no one is supposed to be treated worse. Army personnel will not then be treated any worse than anybody else”,
making it clear that the point about the covenant is to guarantee that there is no disadvantage to armed services personnel in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
I thank the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary for giving way. I appreciate his comments. May I quote from a letter dated
“The Armed Forces Covenant has been adopted by England, Scotland and Wales, to provide equal access to health care 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”— meaning Northern Ireland—
“as health care arrangements are delivered on an equitable basis to all members of the community.”
That is a clear reference—I asked the Minister about this—to section 75. With the greatest of respect to the shadow Secretary of State, Sinn Féin’s view is that the armed forces covenant has not been adopted and that section 75 excludes its implementation.
I can say with equal clarity to the right hon. Gentleman that the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland is wrong in that regard, because the armed forces covenant has been adopted in Northern Ireland and should be implemented. The Opposition are clear about that.
I feel the need to say strongly that the armed forces covenant has not been formally adopted in Northern Ireland. I was a special adviser in the First Minister’s office, working with Executive colleagues, and I sat down with and repeatedly asked Sinn Féin for the covenant to go on the Executive’s agenda and for it to be agreed. Sinn Féin refused time and again, not for any logical reason and not on the basis of equality, but due to its historical opposition to the British armed forces. I sat there and had those conversations. The armed forces covenant has not been formally adopted in Northern Ireland.
The point is that this is clearly a politicised and, at some level, a political issue. Clearly, points are being scored on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. The key point I want to make is that the Government’s view, which we share, is that—
I am going to draw my remarks to a conclusion. The point is that 90% or so of the covenant is being applied properly in Northern Ireland, but there are some gaps. I have raised some with the Minister, and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has raised others. Mental health needs to be considered in particular.
In practical terms, the view expressed repeatedly to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when it assessed the situation is that the reality is that no material disadvantage is being suffered by veterans in Northern Ireland. In support of that conclusion, Colonel Richard Gordon of SSAFA said to the Committee that he did not think that there any disadvantages to the armed forces community in Northern Ireland in respect of the covenant, and Brian Maguire of the Royal British Legion said:
“I cannot point to a single case, in all the cases we have dealt with in our time, where I can say for sure that the individual would have been better treated had they been living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.”
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned what an important institution the Royal British Legion is in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and I completely support him. Alongside SSAFA, it is one of the most important organisations providing support to veterans, and it does not support the conclusions that he drew in his remarks. The Royal British Legion supports the conclusions that I draw, and we need the covenant to be implemented properly. I therefore support the Government in not changing section 75, because it is entirely consistent with the application of the covenant to Northern Ireland.
I welcome this debate and the speech of Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. It was hard to disagree with anything that he had to say, because he reminded us of the sacrifice of veterans across the UK, including in Northern Ireland. When we think about veterans, particularly on the mainland, we often tend to conjure up visions of either those brave warriors who defended us during the second world war, many of whom I am glad to say are still with us, or the younger men and women who served more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. We sometimes tend to forget about the many other conflicts in which we have been involved, such as Korea, the Falklands, Bosnia and, of course, Northern Ireland. I am not an expert, but that must have been one of the most difficult experiences of all, because many of the reservists to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred were living with the threat of violence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
There are people in this House who have served on frontlines around the world. I have never done so, but I imagine that being on active service must be incredibly stressful. Once that six-month tour of duty finishes, however, perhaps people can start to relax again, but that was not the case for so many people in Northern Ireland, particularly those who lived there. We have a particular debt of gratitude to all of them and to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue.
I feel very strongly about this issue. I am the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which initiated an inquiry into the care of veterans in Wales and looked at the armed forces covenant. I believe that Owen Smith was a member of the Committee at the time, so he will be aware of the report. It was a good report, because it showed that good practice was going on across the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no room to make any political points in that regard. We visited Scotland and met Keith Brown, a Scottish National party Member of the Scottish Parliament who is himself a former member of the Royal Marines. He spoke about the very good work that was being done in Scotland. Local authorities in Wales, led by all political parties, also support the armed forces covenant. We heard evidence from the then Labour Minister, and since then we have heard positive statements from the current Labour Minister, Mark Drakeford. A lot of good practice is going on across the United Kingdom.
I will briefly remind Members of some of our report’s conclusions. We thought that the one-stop shops for veterans in Scotland were an extremely good idea and that they could be considered in Northern Ireland and Wales. We heard evidence that those who had been moving around on service were sometimes disadvantaged when making an application for social housing. We heard about veterans experiencing problems getting paperwork transferred from the Ministry of Defence to their NHS. I say “their” NHS because there are, of course, four different ones across the United Kingdom, which can add to the problem. I hope that the Minister will look at that. People also have problems getting their children into school because they do not live in the catchment area. For those and many other reasons, it is very important that we implement all aspects of the armed forces covenant right across the United Kingdom.
I have a few, not complaints or criticisms, but thoughts. I do not want them to be seen as in any way critical of what the Government are doing, because overall I think they are doing very well. There were three things that worried me a little when we undertook that inquiry. The first is the definition of “veteran”. Under the current terminology, I could define myself as an armed forces veteran, having spent about 18 months in the Territorial Army in the late 1980s, during which time I am afraid I did not do anything of any great note, other than run around the Brecon Beacons on a Sunday evening and enjoy a cheap pint afterwards. Yes, it is a worthy enough thing to do, but at that time there was no suggestion that the TA would ever be called up to active service, as is now the case.
People who spend a few months in the Army, perhaps without even completing their basic training, can come out and call themselves veterans. I am not really comfortable with that—I do not think that it is absolutely right—although it would be rather difficult to pin down an exact definition, because there are people who have spent less than 12 months in the Army who may have been on active service, and they certainly should qualify. Perhaps we need to think about that.
Secondly—this came to me partly because of the definition issue—I am concerned about some of the charities currently working with armed forces veterans. I hasten to add that I do not mean those mentioned by hon. Members today, including the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and SSAFA, which are excellent charities. I have certain concerns, however, about some that have been set up by people who are well-meaning but who do not have the relevant experience, and I am afraid that others have been set up by people who are trying to cash in on public support for the armed forces. I am currently involved in what could become a criminal prosecution, having challenged people who were in combat clothing—one of them had spent a few months in the Army and the other had not—who had links to an unpleasant, so-called far-right organisation, and who were collecting money in my hometown of Monmouth during the remembrance period. I am very concerned that some organisations that are setting themselves up as charitable concerns for armed forces veterans may have sinister connections to extremist political groups or may simply be trying to make money—or some combination of the two. That needs to be looked at, and I am not certain the Charity Commission and Cobseo are doing enough to crack down on it.
My other concern goes back to the definition of “veteran”. We rightly use that term to define anyone who has served in any branch of the armed forces, but other people, particularly in Northern Ireland, also ought to qualify. Obviously, I refer to members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but I also refer to the forgotten service—those who have worked in the Prison Service. They also face and have faced violence and intimidation on a regular basis, and would be worthy of some of the care we are suggesting should go to members of the armed forces.
I do not want to make any criticisms of any Government or any political party in this debate. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has secured it, and I hope that all the issues he has raised today will be properly addressed by the Government. I am confident that with today’s two Ministers, both of whom have very relevant experience of the armed forces, those concerns will be addressed.
I congratulate Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson on his passionate, knowledgeable speech, which kicked off this afternoon’s debate. I declare an interest: my husband was an officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. I have mentioned that many times before, but I probably have not mentioned that he is an Ulsterman.
He was a very special Ulsterman.
The armed forces covenant is a statement of the moral obligation that exists between the nations of the UK, the Government and the armed forces. It was enshrined in law for the first time in 2011. Specifically, it outlines two core principles. The first is that current or former members of the armed forces, or their families,
“should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.”
The second is that:
“Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for…the injured and the bereaved.”
However, as the Armed Forces Act 2011 does not create legally enforceable rights for service personnel, across the UK it remains a statement of intent rather than a statement of action. It is a statement of intent to which members of the armed forces have no recourse, so we are letting service personnel down.
The right hon. Gentleman described the particular culture that prevents members of the armed forces and veterans in Northern Ireland from identifying themselves. I have experienced that personally when visiting Ulster with my husband and having to check under our car for devices, so I appreciate the situation we are talking about. The right hon. Gentleman described in some detail the fact that although many charities work with veterans in Northern Ireland, a lack of funding and a lack of transparency in some places with the veterans means there are serious issues. However, I believe this is part of a wider problem across the UK.
We welcome the progress that has been made with the new ministerial covenant and veterans board. In recent years, society has become far more aware and more understanding of the effects of military service on the health, mental and physical, of those who choose to serve, and on their relationships with their families and communities. However, it must be recognised that for veterans in Northern Ireland very particular circumstances apply, and for local councils to show reluctance to fully implement the armed forces covenant is simply letting these veterans down.
Veterans are an asset to society, and they deserve our thanks respect and support. In Scotland alone, every year approximately 1,800 men and women complete their military service and settle in our communities, many with their families. We have an ambition to make Scotland the destination of choice for service leavers and their families. For almost a decade, the Scottish Government’s Scottish veterans fund has made a real difference to the lives of the armed forces community in Scotland and has provided £1.1 million to a host of veterans and ex-service charities that offer advice, help and support. There is no doubt that that lead should be followed by other UK nations.
In Northern Ireland, there has been long-standing criticism of the lack of implementation of the armed forces covenant. We are of course all sensitive to the tensions that still exist in parts of Northern Ireland, particularly in respect of the Army, but that must not be used to avoid providing the service that personnel and veterans deserve and require. While I am talking about tensions, I wish to mention the outstanding work that has been done to break down barriers in respect of policing in Northern Ireland. The transition from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland has enabled the police in Northern Ireland to have a more inclusive outlook and to be widely accepted in every sector of society.
Members of the republican nationalist community serve with distinction in the RAF and the Royal Navy. For some, though, the Army is still viewed with suspicion. A recruitment drive aimed at alienated communities would undoubtedly improve diversity and community representation in the Army. With movement on this issue, I believe that cross-party support for personnel and veterans would increase—that is, of course, if power-sharing is ever restored.
Much of this debate goes beyond Northern Ireland. What makes this issue infuriating is the voicelessness of personnel and veterans. We believe that personnel should be properly represented in the military and among defence policy decision makers. An armed forces representative body that is on a statutory footing is the norm for many other countries, including Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany. Such a representative body would give voice to our armed forces and would be able to liaise directly with the Government and ensure that personnel and veterans throughout the UK are central to defence thinking. That would be a major step forward for personnel across the UK and would give a much stronger voice to veterans in Northern Ireland.
The UK Government should honour the armed forces covenant tenet of “no disadvantage”. The covenant commits the UK Government to removing, where possible, disadvantage experienced as a result of service, and that includes for serving personnel and veterans in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson on bringing this debate to the House. I agree with the Minister for the Armed Forces that the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was passionate and thoughtful, and I enjoyed sitting through it. He was correct to pay tribute to the reserve forces in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to those in the reserve forces throughout the United Kingdom. He also mentioned how the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland raised more money for the poppy appeal than any other part of the UK. I took that as a challenge, because we Scots do not like to be beaten at many things, so perhaps in future the Royal British Legion in Scotland will engage in a bit of healthy competition with its Northern Ireland counterpart.
Lady Hermon mentioned the sparse attendance in the Chamber today. If I exclude myself, perhaps I can suggest that what is important is quality rather than quantity. At least every part of the United Kingdom has been represented in the debate, which is very positive.
David T. C. Davies spoke about his Welsh Affairs Committee’s visit to Scotland and the work it did there. He was right to highlight the good work that is being done in Scotland. I will focus my remarks on the good work that is done both Scotland-wide and particularly in Moray.
The armed forces covenant is taken very seriously in my constituency, which has had a significant military footprint for many decades. Unlike other speakers so far in this debate, I want to put it on record that our personnel and our veterans do outstanding service We in this place should never tire of highlighting and praising what they have done and continue to do for their country.
I was delighted when, in October last year, Jo Lenihan was appointed armed forces covenant development officer serving the Moray and Highland military communities. Moray and Highland Councils are to be congratulated on joining forces to secure the post, which is funded by the Ministry of Defence’s covenant fund. As Carol Monaghan said, the covenant is to fulfil the Government’s promise to those serving and those who have served that they and their families are guaranteed to be treated fairly.
As Members will know, Moray has provided a home to the 39 Engineer Regiment at Kinloss barracks since 2012, when the Army took over the base from the RAF. Further east along the coast, RAF Lossiemouth is one of the UK’s two RAF quick reaction alert stations. It is the base for three Typhoon combat aircraft squadrons and an RAF regiment. From 2020, Lossiemouth will also be the host to the new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft operated by two historic squadrons: 120 squadron was originally an anti-submarine unit in world war two, while the origins of 201 squadron date back to the first world war.
I will focus my remarks in today’s debate on the incredibly strong links between the armed forces community and the wider community in Moray, and that is what Jo Lenihan is working hard on to strengthen even further. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was not sure whether you were confused by what I was saying.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that this debate is about the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. He is probably making the link between Moray and Northern Ireland, but I am sure that he will want to focus back on the subject of this debate.
Absolutely. I will take the hint, Madam Deputy Speaker. Whenever a referee looks confused at you, you know there is something wrong. I take that glare in the way that it was intended. What I hope to do in my short remarks is to explain how successful our covenant has been in Moray and why I understand that DUP Members want that success to be replicated in Northern Ireland.
In Moray, the links begin with the youngest members of our community—I hope that that can be replicated in Northern Ireland. Only a week ago, 39 Engineer Regiment hosted pupils from Forres Academy and Kinloss Primary School.
Let me help the hon. Gentleman relate his speech to Ireland. The original derivation of the word “Elgin”, which is in his constituency, is actually “little Ireland”. So there you go—some help there.
I have been in this place for about nine months and that is the first helpful contribution that I have had from a Scottish National party Member. It may be another nine months or nine years before another one comes along, but it is great to have Elgin mentioned in this place.
We have also had 280 Moray schoolchildren attending a world war one centenary roadshow run by a national charity. As in other parts of the country, armed forces personnel also make huge contributions to many voluntary organisations. It is important that we remember that, when the original armed forces community covenant for Moray was signed in 2012, that was when we welcomed the Army to Kinloss barracks. As a sign of our commitment in Moray—again, it would happen in Northern Ireland—that was re-signed in October 2016. It is important to quote the words that were said by the then convenor of Moray Council at that time, because it sums up what the armed forces covenant means in Moray, Scotland and across every part of the United Kingdom. At that signing ceremony, he said:
“This is an auspicious day for Moray. Senior representatives from all the public sectors in Moray and the military have come together to declare our continued support for the close ties and friendship between the armed forces at our two bases and the communities…
The armed forces covenant is tangible proof of how our armed forces and everyone in Moray are all part of the same community, helping and supporting each other.”
That is what we want in every part of the United Kingdom.
The bonds that link our service communities in Moray with the wider area have always been strong, but the armed forces covenant has strengthened them even further. That is why I support the motion tabled by the DUP today. It is right that we recognise the valuable contribution to our armed forces of the men and women from Northern Ireland, including some of the best recruited reserve units in the UK. The final words of the motion are the most important: that this House
“reaffirms its commitment to ensure that the Armed Forces Covenant”— which we enjoy in Moray and in Scotland—
“is fully implemented in Northern Ireland.”
It is a privilege to follow Douglas Ross. His assessment was very interesting, and I was glad when he managed to get Northern Ireland into his speech, even though he had to get some help from the SNP. Everybody has their problems.
Our present day Government have a duty of care, and of course admiration, for each and every member of Her Majesty’s armed forces. Within their remit, it is vital that care and support is given to those who continue to live with the scars and the pains of bygone conflicts. In Northern Ireland, of course, we are all too aware of the pains of battle and what members of the armed forces faced during the years of struggle against the republican army. The military covenant is a real and genuine opportunity for the Government to show their gratitude to all who fought for the cause. Our nation has a moral obligation of support to our military members, and I am proud to say that right across the United Kingdom, people are continuing to fulfil that obligation.
In my constituency of Upper Bann, we had many losses over the years. From the 11th Battalion that was stationed in the constituency, we lost 16 soldiers. The Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment lost somewhere in the region of 205—the breakdown of that is 198 UDR and seven RIR—and 66 or 67 former members were killed, I think. In Northern Ireland 722 soldiers were killed by terrorists. Of course, on top of that we have members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and other forces. Some 6,116 were wounded. As my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson pointed out, some 300,000 soldiers served over that period in Northern Ireland.
The House can understand in just how much affection the people of Northern Ireland and the people on these Northern Ireland Benches hold our Crown forces today. Over the many years of troubles in Northern Ireland, the men and women of Ulster were never found wanting when it came to donning the uniform of the Crown forces. They knew duty had to be done, and they did it to defend the whole of the United Kingdom, right across the United Kingdom including, of course, Northern Ireland, with the troubles, but also even further afield, into Afghanistan and Iraq, where many were traumatised over the years.
Let me remind the House that there are Members of Parliament who disregard this covenant and have absolutely no desire to see its full implementation in Northern Ireland. Despite their objection, Sinn Féin cannot build the courage to stand before us in this Chamber and explain exactly why. That attitude fails to represent the voices of constituents who support the covenant and it fails to fulfil the overall obligation that we have to support our servicemen and women.
One key area of the covenant that I want to draw attention to is the importance of transition. I am sure that other hon. Members will touch on it; some have already done so. I have no doubt that this House recognises that the transition from service back into civilian life is a process that can often pose mental barriers for both the serviceman or woman and their family. Support for mental health care patients is a key issue that I have sought to address in my constituency of Upper Bann.
It never ceases to disturb me when I hear some of the stories of those who are struggling with mental illness. Across Northern Ireland, we face ever increasing numbers of mental health cases, and our healthcare professionals and support organisations are struggling to meet the demand, as we heard earlier. However, an ever greater concern is the many patients who think they can deal with their mental health problems and attempt to provide their own remedy of recovery. As we all know, this can often lead to dangerous, harrowing and tragic circumstances.
Many of our heroes will finish their service without physical injury or long-term damage, but in the months and years ahead, the scars and reality of battle can so often return with even greater effect. If fully implemented, the covenant would provide the training, education, healthcare referrals and appropriate career support for all those going through that transition period.
In closing, and on behalf of my constituents in Upper Bann, I re-emphasise my support for the full implementation of the armed forces covenant. I appeal to the Government to honour their commitment of care to the servicemen and women who have given so much for this nation. It was mentioned that about 90% of the covenant is implemented. It has not been implemented in full in Northern Ireland as it has been in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a point of principle here. Why are the servicemen and women who have sacrificed so much over the years in Northern Ireland being discriminated against, as British citizens, when every other part of the United Kingdom has the armed forces covenant? I hope and trust that in the not-too-distant future we will see it implemented in full.
It is a great privilege to speak this afternoon on a motion brought forward by my party. I feel honoured to do so, but we must also remember that, as has already been stated, 763 members of the military lost their lives during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. More than 300 members of the RUC also lost their lives, with 6,116 injured—that is, physical injuries, never mind the tens of thousands suffering from mental illness that has occurred because of what they went through, along with their families, who probably suffer equally.
As has been stated, the difficulty we have in Northern Ireland is that there are those who oppose the full implementation of the armed forces covenant. They are not just the enemies of Northern Ireland, but the enemies of Great Britain. They are the people who would rejoice in and commemorate the killings, 30 years ago this month, of two soldiers, Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood, by the IRA during a campaign to do with the hunger strikes. That was a marked point in the history of Northern Ireland. The same people who would condone those people do not seem to recognise that those who were killed in Gibraltar got—I will use the term—their just deserts. Those who were there as enemies of the state were taken out by those who deemed that they there to create havoc. I can tell you, those are the enemies of Ulster.
There are families who have not been recognised, nor had the opportunity to access services, not just in housing but in healthcare and everything else. Many areas need full implementation, and one of them relates to vacant property. Many men went away as reservists, serving their Queen and country in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still had to pay rates on the properties that they occupied. That is not the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. Those areas need to be brought in line.
I do not believe that we as a country go far enough even in recognising our military. When I am in the United States, I see with pride the way they treat their military and those who have served their country. They learned their lesson after the Vietnam war, when men came back and were treated as outcasts. We as a country need to learn from what has happened in the United States. People there have turned a corner; they recognise their military. They make it evident that they appreciate what the military have done for their country. Military personnel do not go to the back of the line; they come to the front.
It is vital that we do not put these people to the back of the line. As my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson said, those who are waiting on medical treatment and have to come across to the United Kingdom for treatment because of their injuries are not getting preferential treatment. I have a friend who lost both his legs in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, when he has to come over for treatment, he has to pay for his journey across. That needs to be looked at. As a country, we should be proud to go the second mile. We should not just state that we have a military covenant, but should go the second mile and give the military preferential treatment.
I disagree with what some people are saying, because section 75 of the Act implementing the Belfast agreement was to protect minorities. An amendment was made to it that includes the word “Travellers”—I stand to be corrected, but I believe that Travellers get a special mention in section 75. Lord Ashcroft did a review into the military in 2014, and I want to see the military and those who served within our security forces in Northern Ireland get the same recognition, with the same amendment made for them.
I see the House as widely united on this issue. It is great to see that we have brought a little bit of civility between the SNP and the Conservatives. Let us see if we can foster that and move it forward. I am probably not speaking to the converted, but we will try our best. It is great to see that our motion has the support of the House. Let us bring forward in Northern Ireland a full implementation of the armed forces covenant.
I think I have literally chased her away, unfortunately.
Northern Ireland, as a number of Members across the House have outlined, has a long and proud record of service in our British armed forces. I wish to add my voice to all those in the Chamber who have paid tribute to that service and sacrifice by so many. Indeed, not only Northern Ireland but pre-partition Ireland had a very proud record of those who served in our British armed forces from across both communities.
In my maiden speech, I referred to one of those men: my own great-grandfather, James Sandford, who, coming from pre-partition Ireland, fought at not only the Somme but Messines and was injured in Ypres—shot in the chest—and survived. I also would like to refer to my grandfather, Joseph Little, who served during world war two and was one of the men evacuated off the beaches at Dunkirk.
I mention those details first because I am incredibly proud of my family history and my grandfather and great-grandfather and all those who served, and secondly because it took me until this stage in my life to take a look into the details of my ancestors’ service. It is incredibly important for not only my generation but younger generations to take time to look into their family histories and learn about the incredible service that these people put in to defend our democracy and the great United Kingdom over the years.
I understand that, as has already been mentioned, Northern Ireland has the highest number of soldiers per head of population in any part of the United Kingdom. We contribute disproportionately to the British armed forces, and I am incredibly proud of that. It is not just about the money raised in the poppy appeal and the incredible things that people do on the ground to raise that money, it is about that disproportionate contribution to the armed forces. We are very proud of that fact at all levels across Northern Ireland.
In our work on the armed forces covenant, we have estimated that the combination of the higher proportional contribution to the British armed forces with Operation Banner, the presence of security forces in Northern Ireland and recruitment to the UDR, including the part-time UDR, means that approximately a third of all people in Northern Ireland had served in some capacity, were an immediate family member of somebody who had served or were a grandparent or grandchild of somebody who had served. That is an incredible statistic when we consider that Northern Ireland is still a divided society, where the vast majority of the volunteers—those who go into the reserves or the armed forces—are from one side of the community, although I welcome the fact that that is changing and we are seeing interest from both sides.
My hon. Friend provides me with an opportunity to recall a visit I made to Camp Bastion in Helmand province in Afghanistan—we were visiting the First Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, which was on operational deployment. I met soldiers from Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Dublin who were serving in our armed forces. I have to say that they had the Irish tricolour on display alongside the Ulster banner, demonstrating that people from both traditions serve in the UK armed forces, which we very much welcome.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.
In my constituency of Belfast South, not only do we have many people who have served and continue to serve, but two units of the reserves are based there: on Sunnyside Street, there is a unit of the Army Medical Services—253 (North Irish) Medical Regiment—and on Hospital Road in Hydebank we have A Squadron of the Army Medical Services, 204 (North Irish) Field Hospital. I pay tribute to all the reserves who serve in that way. I know that many of them have incredibly stressful and busy full-time jobs, but they still find the time to join the reserves and to serve, providing the incredibly valuable expertise in the medical field that, sadly, is so necessary at times. It is an incredible thing that they do, and I pay tribute to them.
I want to focus on the outstanding issue of the application and implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. Many in this House are fully aware of the particular challenges, which have been discussed many times, facing our armed forces personnel not only when they are serving but particularly when they leave the armed forces. That is of course the same for those in Northern Ireland, but I want to pick up on two issues: the educational challenges facing the families of serving armed forces personnel, particularly their children; and mental health.
In Northern Ireland, as in the NHS across the UK, services are under huge pressure. We all know why, and we have heard many of the reasons for that. Sadly, however, in Northern Ireland we have had decades of historical underfunding, particularly for mental health services. Yet along with that historical underfunding, we have particularly high and growing levels of mental health needs. Indeed, I understand that we have the highest levels of mental health challenges and needs across the UK.
We have examined the challenges facing Northern Ireland, and we know that some groups are proportionally more likely to face mental health challenges during their lifetime. They include people who experience poverty, particularly transgenerational poverty, and young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In addition—this is particular to Northern Ireland—there are the victims of the troubles and those who serve in the armed forces. The point I am trying to put across is that mental health is a particular challenge for Northern Ireland because we have higher numbers in both those categories.
In relation to victims and survivors, some of the areas that suffered most acutely during the troubles were urban, built-up areas. The constituency of my right hon. Friend Nigel Dodds had the highest number of shootings and murders during the troubles. A huge number of people were impacted by that. We know from the evidence that people who lived in close proximity to those things, or who were directly impacted by them because they or a family member was the victim of violence, tend to have significantly higher levels of mental illness. There is a need to do more for victims of the conflict, and we are looking at that.
Connected to that, many of the victims were people who served in the armed forces. As my colleagues have outlined, a significant percentage of the victims served in the likes of the part-time RUC, the RUC, the part-time UDR and the British armed forces. Although we try to deal with some of that in Northern Ireland through our victims and survivors provision, we need much higher levels of mental health provision because of our armed forces personnel.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the reference she made to my constituency, the legacy of the troubles and the service of so many veterans over the years. One reason why we have such high rates of mental health problems and suicide in Belfast, and north Belfast in particular, is the legacy of the troubles and the service of so many and what they have gone through. I am very grateful to her for highlighting that issue.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.
The higher levels of victims and armed forces personnel in Northern Ireland put particular pressure on our services, in particular the NHS in Northern Ireland, which in turn has an even greater detrimental impact on soldiers who are just coming out of the armed forces now, who are trying to cope with a range of challenges from depression right through to post-traumatic stress disorder. A number of pieces of research have been commissioned that indicate that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is considerably higher in Northern Ireland and that the rate of those who suffer from it is much higher among those who served in the troubles or who have recently left the armed forces. That is incredibly challenging for our health service to deal with.
I also want to touch on education. I want to pick up on how the lack of the full implementation of the armed forces covenant has as detrimental impact in Northern Ireland. I was in the Northern Ireland Assembly before I came to this place, where I created and chaired the all-party group on tackling educational underachievement. One category we looked at that faced particular challenges was the children of serving armed forces personnel or those who had recently left the armed forces. That was due to a number of factors, such as the frequency of moves between different schools and young people coming into school as a late starter or late restarter.
That is why I want to make reference to the comments of the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I care deeply about trying to make sure that those young people get full support, along with a number of other categories, such as young people on free school meals. It was absolutely clear from the research that those young people suffered disadvantage. In spite of that evidence, I could not get Sinn Féin to agree to implement the armed forces covenant and take action on these matters. The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to political point scoring. I do not say things to score political points, but I will always stand up and call out those who are in the wrong. It was absolutely wrong for Sinn Féin to refuse to implement the armed forces covenant at Executive level and to refuse to implement the community covenant at local council level where it has the power to veto. We need to be absolutely accurate about this, because that is exactly what is happening. Some Departments and agencies are clearly indicating that they are going ahead with implementation and are trying to support people in recognition of the objective needs of our armed forces personnel, but setting a policy of the formal adoption of the armed forces covenant would send a clear message across all levels of government.
As I indicated earlier, I had the privilege of working as a special adviser at the heart of government for almost 10 years. I sat on many cross-departmental and cross-agency boards, project boards and programme boards, looking at the development and implementation of policy. The biggest barrier to the effective implementation of policy and the effective dealing with identified problems was the lack of a clear policy on a top-down basis.
My hon. Friend is making a very eloquent and powerful speech. Would it not be incumbent on the shadow Secretary of State to correct the record when he said that the armed forces covenant had been adopted in Northern Ireland? He did not respond to that point earlier and it would be good if it was put on the record.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope the shadow Secretary of State will take that opportunity, having accused anybody who has tried to stand up, and say very clearly, “I was there, I have had those conversations.” This is not about attacking Sinn Féin. This is not about political point scoring. This is about calling people out. It is a fact that we could not get it implemented at Executive level, so it was never formally adopted. Where individual Departments, individuals or agencies wanted to implement it, they did so, but there was no broad adopted policy to ensure that it happened. There was no accountability in relation to that.
Another point worth mentioning briefly relates to the community covenant. Again, this is a fact and I ask the shadow Secretary of State to take a look at it. Where there is a Sinn Féin-dominated council, Sinn Féin refuses to adopt the community covenant. That means there is a differential in terms of impact. There is a variation in the policy set to officials and others who implement policy.
The hon. Lady is addressing the House with considerable eloquence, but I express the cautious optimism that she is approaching her peroration.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am indeed.
In conclusion, despite what we have heard about the good work by third sector organisations, some councils and some Departments, clear policy needs to be set down at all levels. That has not happened and we want it to happen. We will continue to ask the Government to intervene to make sure that there is the full adoption of the armed forces covenant as soon as possible, so that no matter where our armed forces personnel live across the United Kingdom, they can receive the full protections and support they need.
I hope I will not try the patience of Ulster Members by talking about Northern Ireland, but, as I have told Members before, my wife comes from the city of Armagh, very near the border with the Republic. We were married in the darkest days of the troubles. Sadly, the thump of bombs and the crack of high velocity weapons is, even as a highlander, no strange sound. A number of friends of my wife’s family were killed in the troubles and both her brothers, as I have told this Chamber before, served in the UDR. Carol Monaghan talked about shining a torch under the car to check for a bomb. That brought back a memory of asking one of my brothers-in-law what on earth he was doing as he did just that and he replied, “Looking for a bomb.” When sitting in the passenger seat beside a man like that and he turns the engine on—I actually put my fingers in my ears, because I was not sure whether I was about to meet my maker. David T. C. Davies talked about the strain and that is exactly what it was all about. It was tough going. These were brave guys and girls who did their bit for their country.
Just to lighten up slightly, let me share two anecdotes. First, I remember when as a foolhardy young married man, I went exploring into south Armagh, which was bandit country, and inevitably, I got lost. Very near the County Monaghan border with the Republic, I remember noticing something lying beside the road—this wee lane, in fact—and I got out and examined it. It was a circular disc of aluminium with spikes coming out of it. I then realised that it was the bottom of what had obviously been a practice churn bomb that had been exploded in a remote part of County Armagh.
Again, perhaps for the amusement of the House, I will regale hon. Members with a tale about me and three other young people who were travelling from Armagh city to Omagh in County Tyrone on our way to a party. We were pulled up and stopped by a vehicle checkpoint, and an armed patrol of the UDR asked us to get out of the car. When I did, there were astonished looks for a start, and then they questioned me very closely about what on earth I thought I was. The trouble was that we were on our way to a fancy dress party in Omagh, and I was dressed—believe it or not—in tights and a large hessian sack as a haggis. That may or may not be in the annals of the deeds of the UDR.
The point I am making is simply that I knew the six counties of Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Today, I know Northern Ireland just as well, because my wife and I go there very frequently. What I see today is so different. I see the centre of Armagh city booming. I see Enniskillen—I am quite struck by this—in Fermanagh as a community that is really thriving. I can see all the shops doing well. I wish to goodness that some of our town centres in Scotland were doing as well as that, but that is for another debate on another day.
Of course, I give the armed forces absolute credit for what they did. It was a proud record. The point has been made about not forgetting the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and all those whose lives were endangered during that time. My concluding point is that we have peace today, so in addition to the armed forces, we should recognise the contribution and the courage of those on both sides of the divide who brought about that peace process. Lastly, I was married two miles from the border with the Republic—I know all about hard and soft borders.
It is a pleasure to do the winding-up speech in this debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson on setting the scene so well and on reminding us of the 300,000 people who have served in uniform since 1969. He also reminded us—we need reminding sometimes—that those people from Northern Ireland have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the world, so it is not just in Northern Ireland. He also mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder and the fact that the very high levels are much due to the 30 years of the troubles. He spoke about the need for veterans’ mental health and psychological problems to be addressed. The Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service also needs to be extended. He referred to the opportunities—equal opportunities and better opportunities—in housing, for victims and in education, health and employment, and he asked the Minister about the Government’s report and the appointment of a champion for Northern Ireland. We look forward to his answer.
The Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, is still a reservist and is still serving in uniform. He is still fit enough to do so—I am afraid I am not, by the way—and it is good to know that he is totally committed to the armed forces. I gently remind him of my question from November 2016, when I referred to the armed forces covenant. He replied that 93% of the covenant was in place in Northern Ireland, but we need to see 100%. He also referred to the LIBOR funding and the good projects that come from that.
Owen Smith—I am pleased that he is in his place—referred to the armed forces covenant and the support that he said he was giving for the military covenant. I remind him—I say this very gently and kindly to him—that we are not terribly happy about the comments that he made in our debate. I remind him that the former shadow Secretary of State certainly understood the issues relating to our commitment to the armed forces in Northern Ireland and the need for a full commitment. The next time he meets Sinn Féin, perhaps he will report back to the House and tell us exactly their thoughts on the need to have the armed forces covenant in place and fully part of what we are about. If he has time, he might also like to come and hear our point of view—I am not aware he has met the DUP parliamentary team in Westminster—and the quicker the better.
I have, of course, met DUP Members, and I would be happy to do so again on any occasion the hon. Gentleman chooses. On the implementation issue, the reality is that the armed forces covenant does apply in Northern Ireland. As I said, there are some issues with implementation, but the semantic point that I think his colleagues were trying to make was that it was not fully endorsed by the Executive, for obvious reasons.
It is not about endorsement; it is about adoption and putting it 100% in place. That is what we want. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps someday he will appreciate and understand what we are about.
I respect the shadow Secretary of State and look forward to meeting him to discuss this issue, but there is nothing semantic about a veteran in my constituency who cannot travel for vital treatment because the Department in Northern Ireland will not fund his travel. That is not a semantic point; it is reality.
David T. C. Davies referred to the service of everyone in Northern Ireland, whether in an Army uniform, in a police uniform or in the prison service, and we thank him for that—I showed him a text earlier from one of my constituents commending him for doing so. Carol Monaghan found it took an Ulsterman to win her heart. We are pleased that that happened.
He was rich the day he married the hon. Lady. That is what riches are—not money—but that is by the by. We thank her for her comments. She clearly outlined local councils’ reluctance in Northern Ireland to fully commit to and implement the military covenant. We are very aware of that, and she has quickly become aware of it as well. She referred to the transition of policing initiative and the principle that there be no disadvantage to service personnel.
Douglas Ross mentioned that councils in Scotland had brought in the military covenant—so the job’s done—and asked why the Northern Ireland councils could not support each other, as should be the case across all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend David Simpson referred to the scars. Sometimes we need to think for a minute sometimes about the scars, the pain and the hurt there has been. He expressed that extremely well in reminding us of the nation’s moral obligation towards those who sacrificed so much for all in the community. He also mentioned how Sinn Féin had disregarded this Parliament.
My hon. Friend Paul Girvan mentioned how proud he was to stand up for veterans and how his own family had been part of that. He also reminded us of the commitment in the US of A to veterans and of those who have lost limbs and sustained life-changing injuries. We have been reminded today of what that means.
My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly mentioned how many of her family members had committed themselves in uniform to liberty and freedom and how incredibly proud she was of the armed forces. She also told us that one third of people in Northern Ireland had either served or had family members who had served. It is good to remember that sometimes. The Army units in her constituency remind us not only of the commitment of the reservists, but of that of the NHS whose personnel are allowed to serve in the reserve forces. We should never forget that.
She was rich on the day she married the hon. Gentleman. That is the important thing.
I am very conscious of the timescale, Mr Speaker, and I am trying hard to stick to it. I must declare an interest, having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Territorial Army for eleven and a half. I enjoyed every minute of my time as a part-time soldier.
My party has raised this issue before in the House, and it is of such grave importance to us that we will continue to raise it here until the contribution of our service personnel is recognised and respected in Northern Ireland in the same way as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We in Northern Ireland should have the same arrangement as Wales, Scotland and England. No matter what has been said in Europe, we are an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My vote in this place is equal to that of every other Member, whether that Member is from Glasgow, Cardiff or London.
We are all equal here. We are all entitled to the same remuneration for our jobs. We are all entitled to the same support, including the support that is available to our families and our dependants. That is a given. Can you imagine the furore, Mr Speaker—I know it would annoy all of us here—if IT support, Library support and all the other support in the House were offered only to mainland MPs? Would we be mad? Of course we would. Can you imagine what would happen if we told the people of Brighton that the percentage of their housing benefit was different from the percentage paid in Bristol? There would be riots on the streets. We know all about riots in Northern Ireland, but I am sure that people in Bristol or Brighton would go mad.
Please will someone tell me why anyone thinks that it can be OK for there to be an armed forces covenant on the UK mainland and not in Northern Ireland? There is something seriously wrong with that. Is the sacrifice made by those in Northern Ireland not the same? Are their lives not worth as much? Are their families not deserving of support and care? Does the postcode lottery extend to serving soldiers and veterans from Northern Ireland? There is not one person here who could or should believe that, yet this is where we stand—still, after too many years of discussing the issue.
We are coming away from Europe, and it is hard. It is a slog, because we have the audacity to say that we wish to regain our sovereignty and make decisions for our people, as we are elected to do, instead of being financially taken advantage of by Europe and given little in return. Even in this, however, we do not have our own sovereignty. We are being held to ransom by members of a minority party who do not give the House the respect that it deserves by sitting in the Chamber. They do not take part in our debates, they do not take part in Committees, and they do not ask any questions. They do not take any role in this House . In return, instead of saying. “If you refuse to speak here, you cannot be heard”, we are being held to ransom, and they can do what they want.
I want to put on record my thanks to charities such as Beyond the Battlefield and the Royal British Legion. I think that if the shadow Secretary of State, Owen Smith, visits my constituency, as other Members have, he will find that members of the Royal British Legion there are most perturbed about the armed forces covenant. I am sure that some day he will have an opportunity to talk to them face to face, and to listen to their point of view. Then there is SSAFA, in aid of which I organise a coffee morning every year. We have raised about £25,000 over the years for which I have been a Member of Parliament. A number of other charities are doing great work as well.
Education, health and roads in Northern Ireland are suffering because of the inability of Sinn Féin to maintain the political process in Northern Ireland. My constituency has a long and proud service history, with serving soldiers and veterans alike coming from Strangford. They are being disrespected and disregarded because of an abstentionist party. The members of that party cry for justice, but it is clear that their thirst is for vengeance against anyone who has worn a uniform or is perceived to be the enemy. They cry for openness and transparency while attempting to have convictions overturned, and include the courts in their attempted rewriting of factual history. They cry and they cry and they cry, but I believe that in Northern Ireland we must move forward.
We are in this Chamber. We are working for the people. We are using our voices for the people of Strangford and the people in Northern Ireland as a whole. I ask the Secretary of State to hear the people of Northern Ireland, to implement the covenant, and to do it with immediate effect. I ask him to take control of Northern Ireland, and to consider our sincere request for our people to be heard. I ask him not to sit still, but to make decisions for all of us.
I hope I am within the time limit that you wanted, Mr Speaker.
Thank you. It is the time limit that I got. We are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Talking of time limits, Mr Speaker, it is 6.59 pm now, and I am delighted to have until 8.4 pm to conclude this debate. I pay tribute to all who have spoken, and specifically to the DUP for calling this important motion and focusing on something that is important both to me personally and the Government. I declare an interest, in that I have served as a regular in Her Majesty’s armed forces—indeed, in Northern Ireland as well—and I serve as a reservist as a lieutenant colonel now.
The covenant is about our commitment, indeed our obligation, as a grateful nation to those who have served for the sacrifices they have made. We as a nation, a Government and a Parliament put them in a place of danger; we ask them to do things that arguably others in society do not do. Therefore, there is not only gratitude, but a determination to show our thanks by making sure that we look after them when they decide for that final time to slide the uniform back across to the quartermaster and move into civilian street.
It is important to say that the absolute majority serve well, transition well and adapt back into civilian society well; I make that point because this is a sensitive issue and people could get the impression from some of the debates we have that, were they to serve, they would perhaps come out damaged or frail, and that is not the case. I hope the whole House agrees that those who have served and are serving are better for it, and the nation is better for their service and what they can contribute once they have completed their service. Having said that, some, through no fault of their own, experience difficulties, and that is where the covenant comes in: to make sure we can provide that help, whether on employment, housing or debt. These are the aspects of the covenant that we need to make sure work in every part of the UK.
The covenant is not just about the obligations of the MOD. That is why the veterans board was created to bring together those who have responsibility in other areas of Government across Whitehall, and to make sure they are held to account, so that when problems arise from the issues raised today, we know where to turn—to the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education or the devolved Administrations —to say, “What are you doing to improve what’s going on?”
I made a very interesting Remembrance Sunday visit to Belfast, and I thank all involved in that for helping me to better understand what is actually happening there, and to meet the various characters in 38 Brigade and hear what is happening today, which is very different from when I served myself. We also spent some time focusing on the practical application of the covenant, and we must recognise that its application is different in Northern Ireland, where it is a sensitive issue due to the unique political circumstances there.
However, much has changed since the last time we debated this subject four years ago. The Northern Ireland veterans support office is now established, up and running and working with the charitable sector, Cobseo and the public sector. We also have a veterans champion in each of the 11 authorities—again, working well—and we have seen significant funding in various aspects of support for the veterans community: for example, around half a million pounds to Combat Stress, which is specifically focused on its work in Northern Ireland, and £600,000 to Belfast Somme Nursing Home as well.
The covenant is also about employment; it is about making sure that there is that transition, a point made by Members across the Chamber today. We have the Defence Relationship Management organisation, which takes those who have chosen to put their hand up and say, “I am departing the armed forces,” through a journey, which begins up to a year and sometimes two years before the end of their service through to two years beyond their service, to make sure they are on their feet.
Again, I stress the case that about 90% of those who leave the armed forces—about 15,000 a year—are back in education or in employment within six months of leaving. But we must all recognise that the help is not always needed straight after they have left, but is sometimes needed many years after. The point that has been made again and again is that if someone is suffering from PTSD or another mental health issue, it can incubate and be there for a number of years, and sometimes the umbilical cord of support from the armed forces is stretched or almost broken. We have seen cases across the country of people coming forward to ask for help from medical services without even declaring that they are a veteran, despite that being something that a GP may need to be aware of. It is very important that we address that better, and we recognise the difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland.
Employment is critical for recognising the value of somebody who has served in the armed forces, with their leadership, commitment, teamwork, grit, tenacity and determination. Who would not want to employ somebody who has worked in the armed forces and has so much to offer? That is why I am pleased that the armed forces covenant is being signed by many big businesses, including in Northern Ireland, such as Caterpillar, Asda and Royal Mail. We are also working with 700 smaller businesses to ensure that there is engagement and a track for people when they leave the armed forces to see where their skills can be transferred.
In conclusion, the covenant is a journey. We created it, we signed it and we have made the commitment, but there is much more work to do, not just in Northern Ireland but across the country. Because of my service and the passion that the Minister for the Armed Forces and I have, we want to make this work. We have to make it work. I thank the Democratic Unionist party for bringing this debate to the House today. The duty of debt that we owe is shared across the House, and this is the beginning of a journey. If I can make a promise to the DUP, I would be more than delighted to visit Northern Ireland again in the very near future to look in detail at some of the points made by DUP Members today, so that we can move things another notch further.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
recognises the valuable contribution made by men and women from Northern Ireland to our armed forces, including some of the best recruited Reserve Units in the UK and reaffirms its commitment to ensure that the Armed Forces Covenant is fully implemented in Northern Ireland.