My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate and on a powerful and telling speech. She mentioned the military covenant whose words I would like to quote. It states:
"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices—including the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service ... This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility".
The same covenant must apply to all three services in equal measure. Do Her Majesty's Government accept that, too?
Every day individual servicemen and women on operations overseas are making personal sacrifices—and some the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the nation. Since 2003, some 257 have been killed in action. Larger numbers have been wounded, some most horrifically, but thanks to their medical treatment they live—albeit severely disabled in many cases. Others who have no physical disabilities are traumatised by their experiences and may never be well again. Almost all are young, in the first few years of their adult life; some not even out of their teens. No one can claim that today's service men and women are not fulfilling their part of the covenant, as also did the 16,000 who have died since World War II on operations and whose names are recorded on the Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire.
How are the Government and the nation responding? How well are they keeping faith with their responsibilities to so many service personnel and dependants in this contract? Keeping faith is not just a matter of financial reward for a job well done. It must go deeper to uphold this unique contract. The Royal British Legion recently launched a well researched campaign drawing attention to government failings in meeting the covenant. There is more to add.
No amount of repetition of respect and admiration for the Armed Forces will outweigh the impact of government inactions or perceived disinterest in the activity and feelings of service personnel. Do the Armed Forces not merit even one line in the gracious Speech when they are deployed on operations far from home? Where is the support in that? It hollers blinkered disinterest.
How can the Armed Forces feel that the Government are four-square behind them with both the Secretary of State and the Minister for defence equipment and support only part-time holders of their important positions? A part-time Minister signals a part-time interest in the forces, a part-time responsibility for representing their interests in Cabinet and failure to get adequate funding in the CSR settlement; a part-time Minister, with key responsibilities for their equipment needs, being answerable to two Secretaries of State. Surely a son of the manse knows his Bible: "No man can serve two masters". Does all this not undervalue the Armed Forces?
I welcomed the Written Statement, 10 days ago, by the Secretary of State for Defence. This promises a Command Paper on what has been done to support service personnel, their families and veterans, and the Government's vision for further support. But this work is not going to be published before spring 2008. Is that the best that a near-invisible Secretary of State can do, tied up as he must be with the problems of Scottish devolution and talk of independence? Can the Minister assure the House that there are funds earmarked in the defence budget to meet the cost of the further support that seems to be anticipated by the Statement? Or is this vision of further improvements just spin, no more than a virtual mirage on a far-off shore?
Ministers have repeatedly acknowledged that we are committed—and have been for some time—way beyond defence planning assumptions. Admitting it, but then doing too little to correct the situation, or only belatedly, is another example of a failure to fulfil their part of the military covenant. In wars of choice, is it not highly immoral to commit forces that are underprovided and inadequately equipped for their tasks? A Government must limit their global aspirations to what they have provided the services, or they fail to honour the military covenant.
The noble Lord, Lord Drayson, made a belated apology to your Lordships for failings in MoD treatment of Gulf War I veterans. He said:
"I accept on behalf of the Ministry of Defence that this issue has not been handled well from the beginning. The department was slow to recognise the emerging ill health issues and to put measures in place to address them".—[Hansard, 11/10/07; col. 341.]
But the Minister for Veterans still refuses to accept the Pensions Appeal Tribunal determination that Gulf War Illness is a valid label to merit compensation for sick veterans from the first Gulf conflict who do not have an established pathology.
Gulf veterans who have had their claims refused should be contacted by the MoD and told that they can appeal if they have not already done so. This would be the least that the MoD can do to make good on its admitted failings and to bring this long-running issue to a satisfactory closure.
I was encouraged to learn that the Hull Teaching Primary Care Trust has written to its healthcare professionals to say that, in addition to fast-tracking treatment for veterans in receipt of a war disability pension, other veterans should be given the same access as the war pensioners if their doctors suspect that their condition may be associated with their military service. Can the Minister confirm that fast-track treatment is a nationwide arrangement—throughout the United Kingdom—for all veterans? Indeed, does fast-track treatment mean giving priority to treatment?
A number of your Lordships challenged one of the critical changes introduced into the new Armed Forces Compensation Scheme 2005. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned, the scheme requires the claimant to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the injury, illness or death was caused mainly by service. Under the former war pensions scheme, in place since 1942, the onus was on the Secretary of State to prove that conditions were not caused by service, and the service person was given the benefit of the doubt. This change disadvantages serving personnel and veterans in poor health, who may be ill prepared to argue their case in any dispute over the cause of their injuries. What an inappropriate time, when we have casualties almost daily, to impose such a change designed, it seems, to save money on compensation.
I have not completed my list of concerns, but I hope that I have said enough to challenge the Government to mend their ways. There is a world of difference in dealing with service personnel as though they were comparable with non-combatants when so many are now serving in operational environments. It is an abrogation of the Government's responsibilities under the covenant. Let them resolve instead to sustain it wholeheartedly, and not just by grudging, belated responses to media and other pressures that embarrass them.
The military covenant is not only between the forces and the Government of the day, it is between the forces and the nation. I have remarked before in debates how impressed I have been by the willingness in the United States to honour and reward service men and women and veterans. If they produce their service identity card, most retailers will willingly give them a discount on their purchases. Would that our national businesses would do the same for our Armed Forces. How better could they indicate their support for the military covenant? Will the Government take that idea forward?