I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and to follow Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is an admirable champion for armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. It is a privilege to have shared in a small way in the work she has done on this issue.
We will have to constrain our contributions this afternoon for reasons outside your control, Madam Deputy Speaker, and outside the Minister’s and mine. I fully appreciate the opportunity to put forward a voice for Northern Ireland at a time when we give a disproportionately higher percentage of our population to the armed forces—higher than anywhere else in this United Kingdom—but are so disproportionately poorly served by the implementation of the armed forces covenant. That is why it is important for me to contribute to the debate.
I accept fully the sincere commitment the Minister has given and is giving to the implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. It is a genuinely felt belief of mine that the Minister sincerely wishes to resolve some of the outstanding and ongoing issues about full implementation in Northern Ireland.
This is such an important issue that we included it within the confidence and supply agreement. However, when we look through this armed forces covenant report, and consider through-life support for armed forces veterans, we see on page 98 reference to the support we give veterans in England; on page 101, reference to the support we give veterans in Scotland; and on page 102, reference to the support we give veterans in Wales. Where is the page on Northern Ireland? Where is the part of this document about the support we give veterans in Northern Ireland? It is not there.
I have raised on the Floor of this House before the Border Force—or border farce—issue that has affected veterans seeking to serve their country in that regard. Anywhere else in the United Kingdom, someone can satisfy the eligibility criteria through their military service; in Northern Ireland, Border Force scrapped that proposal. It did so on the basis of an erroneous understanding of advice given by the Equality Commission. The Equality Commission merely said, “You have to justify your actions if it disproportionately impacts one side of the community or another.” Border Force—an agency of our Government, responsible to a Whitehall Department —decided not to justify why someone’s service within our armed forces should satisfy eligibility criteria. In the thrust and the vein of the armed forces covenant, that is a disgrace. Now Border Force is facing legal challenge from a former member of the armed forces who happens to come from the Roman Catholic community but is being denied the chance to serve his country because of his religion. Border Force cited protections for him and his community, yet it is using those very protections to frustrate that gentleman’s ability to serve his country. That is not okay.
On two separate occasions, for two years in a row, I have had to challenge veterans Ministers in the Defence Committee and say, “It’s great that we have armed forces champions in local government, but, our local government in Northern Ireland has no role or responsibility in housing or in health, or any of the issues through which the champion process makes a big difference.” In October 2016, I brought correspondence to the Defence Committee that stated, up-front and full-square, that the armed forces covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland. That was wrong, but it was the policy direction being set by the Minister of Health at that time, Michelle O’Neill. It was a disgrace. That is why it is crucial that when we consider the implementation of the armed forces covenant, the Minister has to consider placing a statutory duty on Departments and our public services throughout this United Kingdom. This cannot rest at the will or the whim of any Minister in charge at any given time, because to allow it to be within their grip, poisoned by their political ideology at any given time, is a true disservice to service personnel who served us so well.
The Minister has mentioned the veterans support officer who has been appointed. I know that the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland is doing tremendous work to try to navigate its way behind the scenes through the labyrinthine problems that we have in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that the funding that has been made available to them comes from LIBOR, that there is no sustainability of funding, that they are only just getting going, and that they are trying to work without full political support—the full intervention and the full weight of Government behind them. Yet they continue admirably.
I hope that in the coming months the Minister will be able to take the opportunity to think about how he profiles resource properly for veterans’ support in Northern Ireland, including extending it further. How does he recognise that we as a country still owe a duty to the significant number of service personnel who we get from the Irish Republic? The armed forces covenant does not apply at all to those in the Republic of Ireland, and why should it? Yet those veterans who have served this country and have returned to their home nation have to pay for themselves to travel into the UK to avail themselves of these services. Their service was exactly the same; the sacrifice they were prepared to make was exactly the same. We are going to have to consider that in the months to come.
These progress reports, I accept entirely, show a continual development of the covenant commitment to our service personnel. It is a continually improving picture. But until we grasp the nettle of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—until national Government believe that we need to and should amend section 75 to include veterans as a specific classification of individuals who should be protected in equality law—we will never fully realise the commitment that we have made.
I was going to talk about war widows, but Dr Lewis has admirably delivered all the points that needed to be made on that subject, save to say that the principle of the argument has been won with regard to those who have not had their pensions reinstated as a consequence of marriage. The way they are treated is a stain on how we treat the honour and the valour of their former loved ones. I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to resolving and removing that stain in the weeks to come.