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Armed Forces Covenant — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 16th May 2011.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:13 pm, 16th May 2011

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the Armed Forces covenant, which is being published today along with other important documents on how we are taking forward our pledge to rebuild the covenant.

The Government have no higher duty than the defence of the realm, and the nation has no greater obligation than to look after those who have served it. The men and women of the three services-regulars and reservists, whether they are serving today or have done so in the past-their families and those who have lost a loved one in service all deserve our support and respect. That obligation is encapsulated in the Armed Forces covenant. The ties between the nation, its Government and its Armed Forces are not the product of rules and regulations, or of political fashion. They are much deeper than that. They have endured for generations and they go to the heart of our national life. So the Armed Forces covenant does not need to be a long and detailed charter. It should be a simple and timeless statement of the moral obligation that we owe. We are therefore publishing today a new version of the covenant, written for the first time on a tri-service basis.

The covenant is enduring but it will mean different things at different times. The expectations of today's service men and women are rightly different from their predecessors. Alongside the covenant, we have published guidance on what we believe it means in today's circumstances. It sets out a framework for how the members of the Armed Forces community can expect to be treated, and the aspirations and expectations that we believe are implicit in the covenant.

The covenant and the guidance do not, however, describe what the Government are doing to put this into effect. That is why I am also publishing a paper entitled TheArmed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow, which sets out the practical measures we are taking to support the covenant. It brings together the commitments we have already made with the new measures that I am announcing today.

A number of these measures take forward the ideas of Professor Hew Strachan, who led an independent task force on the covenant last year at the request of the Prime Minister. His report was published on 8 December, and I would like to record the Government's thanks for the extremely valuable work that he did. We are today publishing the Government's full response to this report.

One of Professor Strachan's most important recommendations was the introduction of a community covenant. This will strengthen communities and build new links between them, local government and the Armed Forces. We expect it to be launched next month, but I can today announce that we are allocating up to £30 million over the next four years to support joint projects at a local level between the services or veterans' groups and the wider community.

I will now turn to the matter of the Armed Forces Bill, which the House will shortly have a further opportunity to consider. This contains provision for an annual report on the Armed Forces covenant, which is designed to strengthen this House's ability to scrutinise how we are fulfilling our obligations. In this way, the existence of the covenant is being recognised in statute for the first time, as promised by the Prime Minister last year.

In deciding how best to recognise the covenant in law, the Government have had to maintain a careful balance. On the one hand, we do not want to see the chain of command undermined or the military permanently involved in human rights cases in the European courts. On the other, we must ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the wider service community, the Armed Forces charities and the British public for our Armed Forces are met.

We believe that a sensible way forward that will give the right kind of legal basis to the Armed Forces covenant for the first time in our history is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise this review through the annual report, and that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent. I believe it is right that the Government are held to account on delivering the principles underpinning the covenant by this House, and not by the European courts. That is what our approach will ensure.

I want to highlight two important aspects. First, the Government will set out on the face of the Bill the key principles we believe underpin both the covenant and any report on its implementation. Ensuring that members of the Armed Forces community do not suffer disadvantage as a result of their service, and that where appropriate they receive special treatment, are at the heart of the Armed Forces covenant. I can tell the House this afternoon that the Government will bring forward amendments, before the Third Reading of the Bill, to require the Secretary of State to address those principles in preparing his report to Parliament and to recognise the unique nature of service life.

Secondly, the Government have always been clear to the House on their commitment to consult stakeholders on the annual report. First, we intend to consult widely in the preparation of the report-internally through the chain of command, and with external stakeholders. We will be actively interested in evidence about how the whole range of public bodies is performing, not just Whitehall departments. Secondly, before laying the report before the House, we will give the members of the external reference group from outside Government an opportunity to comment on the report, and we will publish any observations alongside it.

We are working with the external reference group to update its terms of reference in line with its significant new role. The Government place great importance on maintaining our dialogue with bodies such as the service families federations and the major service and ex-service charities in telling us what is happening on the ground, and I should like to pay tribute today to the invaluable contribution they make to the welfare of the Armed Forces community. I would like to pay a particular tribute to the contribution to this debate of the Royal British Legion, which continues to do such outstanding work in support of our Armed Forces.

The Armed Forces covenant is not just about words, it is about actions. The men and women of our Armed Forces judge us by what we do to improve their lives and those of their families. Since taking office, this Government have taken a series of important measures to rebuild the covenant. Let me mention some of them. We have doubled operational allowance; we have included service children within the pupil premium; we have introduced scholarships for the children of bereaved service families; and we have taken action to improve mental health care.

These measures are especially impressive when set against the background of the dire economic situation in which this Government must operate. There is much still to do. I have always been clear that our commitment to rebuild the covenant is a journey we are beginning, not something we can do overnight. And I believe our people understand that.

But we are continuing to take action. I am today announcing additional measures that will tackle some of the problems experienced by service personnel, families and veterans. I have already mentioned the new community covenant grant scheme. We are also setting up a new fund of £3 million per year, over and above the pupil premium arrangements, to support state schools catering for significant numbers of service children. We will launch a veteran's card that will allow access to discounts and privileges. In helping injured personnel, we will guarantee that veterans suffering serious genital injuries have access to three cycles of IVF, wherever they live. We will increase from 25 per cent to 50 per cent the rate of council tax relief for military personnel serving on operations overseas.

In addition, between now and the Summer Recess, I expect there to be further announcements, which again underline that this is a priority across the whole of government, and not just defence. Today, Ministers are chairing a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss and agree ways to improve access to housing for our people. My right honourable friend the Health Secretary and I are looking forward to the report from my honourable friend the Member for South West Wiltshire on how to further improve the supply of prosthetics for injured personnel. We will consider how to ensure that guaranteed income payments made under the AFCS are not required to be used to pay for social care provided by the public sector.

The obligation we owe to our service men and women, set against the commitment and sacrifice which they make, is enormous. In the current financial climate, we are not able to do as much to honour that obligation, or to do it as quickly, as we would like, but we can make clear the road on which are embarked.

Our understanding of the covenant will change over time, as will the way in which government and society meet it. The framework we have set out today provides the flexibility we need so that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt we owe our Armed Forces, their families and our veterans. I commend it to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:26 pm, 16th May 2011

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State for Defence and for the advance copies of the three reports on the Armed Forces covenant and the Statement itself. We of course endorse the Minister's comments on the support and respect that our Armed Forces merit and deserve from all of us. We welcome today's Statement and will examine the details closely, including the amendments to the Armed Forces Bill which the Government propose to bring forward.

The Statement represents a U-turn in policy and in intention; one that we welcome. In June last year, the Prime Minister said on "Ark Royal" that a new military covenant would be, as he put it,

"written into the law of the land".

"Ark Royal" has since been decommissioned and, until today, it looked as though the Government were determined that the Prime Minister's pledge on the military covenant would suffer the same fate. The Government brought forward proposals which would reference the covenant in law but without a formal definition. The Royal British Legion said that it was "nonsense" to suggest that that would deliver the Prime Minister's pledge. The Royal British Legion, the public, the media and Members from all sides of both Houses of Parliament have been pressing for amendments to be made to the Armed Forces Bill currently in the other place to honour the pledge and enshrine the military covenant in law.

In February, amendments were tabled in the other place to the Armed Forces Bill which called for a statutory instrument to establish a "written military covenant". They were voted down by the Government. In mid-March, the Prime Minister said that the proposals in the Armed Forces Bill were the "right thing to do", at the same time as the Royal British Legion said that the proposals were "completely counter" to his original pledge.

The Armed Forces Bill has now been delayed for the major rethink which the Government announced in Parliament today, after first announcing it in the media over the weekend. We do not have to look far to find the reason for the welcome U-turn: the likelihood of defeat in the other place and the certainty of defeat in your Lordships' House. The Government are not changing their policy because they want to but because they have to. If that is to be disputed, why has the Armed Forces Bill been delayed? I had been asked for a day for Second Reading, and had agreed it, only for it to be postponed. Why have the Government been speaking and voting against implementing the clear pledge given by the Prime Minister on board "Ark Royal"?

In recent months we have seen pensions for injured soldiers and war widows cut; we have seen allowances cut; we have seen warrant officers sacked by e-mail and announcements of redundancies leaked to national newspapers; and we have seen the pay of service personnel frozen. We hope that today's Statement is the start of a fresh approach to how this Government support our Armed Forces, although I acknowledge the commitment that the Minister has shown, does show and, I know, will continue to show to our Armed Forces.

The covenant is made in recognition of the fact that a career in the Armed Forces differs from all others. It recognises that service personnel agree to sacrifice certain civil liberties and to follow orders, including to place themselves in harm's way in defence of others. In return, the nation recognises its obligations and helps, supports and rewards those in the Armed Forces. As the Minister put it in repeating the Statement:

"The Government have no higher duty than the defence of the realm, and the nation has no greater obligation than to look after those who have served it ... That obligation is encapsulated in the Armed Forces covenant".

In his foreword to the report, The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow, to which the Statement referred, the Secretary of State for Defence also acknowledges the steps taken by the previous Administration.

The Government will now set out in the Bill the key principles which they consider underpin both the covenant and any report on its implementation. With that objective in mind, the Government will bring forward amendments before the Bill's Third Reading in the other place. Can the Minister confirm that that means that the Government will not be accepting the amendments tabled by Mr Philip Hollobone MP in the other place, which were supported by the opposition Benches there, as well as by a number of Members on the government Benches?

Is it the Government's intention to seek to draw up the amendments they are bringing forward on a cross-party basis and in discussion with the Royal British Legion and forces' families? In the light of the strength of feeling that the Government have caused through their lack of enthusiasm until now for delivering on the Prime Minister's pledge, it is surely vital that they do their utmost to make sure that there is now agreement across the board on this vital issue so that the covenant is taken out of the cut and thrust of party politics.

The Statement referred to the introduction of a community covenant, which was one of Professor Strachan's recommendations. The amount allocated is £30 million over the next four years. Can the Minister say a bit more about the kind of joint projects at a local level that the Government have in mind?

The Statement also referred to a new fund of £3 million per year to support state schools catering for significant numbers of service children. Is this all additional money which does not come in whole or in part from any existing funding programmes for children of members of the Armed Forces? How many service children do the Government envisage that this money, over and above the pupil premium arrangements, will in reality be able to support in a meaningful way?

The Government's report entitled The Armed Forces Covenant, made available with the Statement, refers on page 11 to what the Government "will consider" in relation to measures to minimise the social and economic impact of military life and to enable equality of outcome with other citizens, as well as special treatment for the injured and bereaved. The use of the words "will consider" might seem to some a bit weak and vague. Why would the Minister disagree with that view?

The Statement outlined a number of measures, at least some of which appear also to have been the previous Government's policies, as set out in 2008 in the first cross-government strategy on the welfare of Armed Forces personnel and in the 2009 Green Paper, which proposed innovative policies to improve welfare. Can the Minister confirm the total amount of new investment that will be provided to implement the proposals to which he referred in the Statement? Will he also confirm that all this is new investment and is not to be found from within existing resources, and that it is not already contained in whole or in part in any existing programmes announced by this or the previous Government? I also ask that in the context of indications that further cuts may be made by the Government in Ministry of Defence expenditure.

In conclusion, we will support the Government when they do the right thing. In setting out to enshrine the covenant in law, the Government are entitled to the support of the Opposition, and, if they do it properly, that is what they will have. Our Armed Forces and their families would expect us to come together and to work to make a success of this important announcement.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:36 pm, 16th May 2011

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his general support for the Statement. I start by welcoming him to the Dispatch Box in his new position as shadow Defence Minister in this House and I very much look forward to working with him. Defence is such an important issue that I wish to be as open as I am able to be in sharing information with him.

The House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who did a very good job of keeping me on my toes. The noble Lord was in his party's defence team for a number of years and, picking up one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made, I acknowledge the steps taken by the previous Administration on the military covenant issue. I know that this matter was close to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked whether this is a U-turn. It is not. The steps that we are taking in enshrining the principles of the covenant in law fulfil the pledge made by the Prime Minister last summer. This coalition listens and we are very grateful for the work and advice of the Royal British Legion. Significantly, the covenant is being recognised in statute for the first time and it is right that the Third Reading of the Bill should take place after publication of the Armed Forces covenant to allow informed debate.

I may not be able to answer all the noble Lord's questions and, if I do not, I shall certainly write to him. He asked me to explain a bit about the community covenant. The scheme aims to encourage public service providers, the private sector and the voluntary and community sectors to volunteer support to their local Armed Forces community. The nature of the support offered will depend on the needs of the local community but it could take the form of, for example, free access to leisure facilities, discounts in shops and restaurants, or special provisions in local service delivery, such as additional support in accessing public services. The community covenant is intended to be a two-way arrangement, and we will actively encourage the local Armed Forces population in their area to offer support to their local community. This might include participation in open days, school visits or helping with community projects, and it will be determined by the needs of the local area. The community covenant is about integrating service life into the local community and improving engagement between the local service population and other members of the community.

The noble Lord asked about the pupil premium for service children. I can confirm an additional fund of £3 million a year to support state schools catering for significant numbers of service children, including the children of reservists. Many schools run into problems because their pupils have to move quickly with their parents or a new batch suddenly arrives and this can be very disruptive. We understand that up to 36,000 children in England alone will benefit from this.

Finally, I have placed 150 copies of these publications in the Printed Paper Office. I accept that there is a lot to absorb in them and accordingly I am very happy to organise a briefing on the Armed Forces covenant for those Peers who would be interested and my office is in touch with the relevant officials to identify suitable dates. This will enable Peers to digest these publications fully and they will then have the opportunity to ask me or the relevant experts questions.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 5:41 pm, 16th May 2011

I thank the noble Lord very much for repeating the Statement and I look forward to reading the documents he has talked about. A number of the areas of support mentioned in the Statement for Armed Forces personnel, veterans and families deal with health, education and local government support. These are devolved Administration responsibilities. Can the Minister explain how the Government are going to ensure that all the devolved Administrations march in step and that there is no possibility of some postcode lottery in the treatment of individuals by separate Administrations?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, as always, raises a very important issue. Much of what is contained in the document is UK-wide but where matters are devolved, such as education and healthcare, which the noble and gallant Lord mentioned, the devolved Governments are taking forward a number of measures to support the Armed Forces community which reflect the different legislative landscape and the way in which their public services are delivered. It is for them to publicise the measures they are taking. We will work with their respective new Governments to get the best outcome for the Armed Forces community.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, I welcome the Statement but it is worth reflecting that during the time I was the responsible Secretary of State I never heard the phrase "military covenant" used at all. During that time it was accepted, and understood by all who were involved, that we had a responsibility to care for our servicemen. I appreciate that it is the first time the opposition spokesman on defence has spoken, but I found it rather difficult to contain my normal calm self when I heard him complaining about why we were not spending more money on certain aspects of the covenant. How much more we could do if we had not inherited the biggest defence deficit in modern times-£30 billion. Even the papers today make clear the problems we face.

There is heightened public concern because of the campaigns and activities in which we are involved at the present time. Out of Iraq and Afghanistan is coming a legacy that will require enormous attention, considerable expense and priority consideration in housing and health. I welcome the statements made by my noble friend, particularly about housing as there is a distressing number of homeless ex-servicemen and a number who are severely handicapped and homeless. However, the issue is not just the housing of ex-servicemen. We are told that if efficiency improvements provide the resource, something will be done about serious problems in existing service housing, which certainly ought to have the priority in any official covenant. Covenants are fine, enshrined in law is fine, but it is the actions that are taken and the care that is given that matter above anything else.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point and I am certainly not at all happy to be a Minister in this very difficult financial environment. Honouring the covenant does not necessarily mean having to spend large amounts of money. Ensuring that service personnel, their families and veterans are treated fairly can often be about adapting existing policies where the particular needs of the service community have not previously been taken account of. Many of the commitments in the covenant are being led by other government departments and will not rely on the defence budget.

My noble friend made a very good point about the homeless. We take the issue of former personnel who find themselves without a home very seriously. Research carried out specifically in London shows that the proportion of veterans among the homeless population has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Statement and look forward to many of its proposals becoming law. I want to ask the Minister about our 5.5 million veterans, many of whom feel that when they take off their uniform Britain forgets them. Can the Minister tell us precisely what benefits veterans will get from the veterans' card? Further, as there are so many veterans' charities-doing wonderful work that perhaps we as a country ought to be doing-many veterans do not know where to turn when they are in difficulty. What progress has been made by Veterans UK in its ambition to become the number one point of contact for ex-service men and women who need help?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me about the veterans' card which I understand will be launched next year to access commercial discounts or privileges and to consider how this could be expanded to include service families. Anyone who served in the Armed Forces will be entitled to have this veterans' card-so a lot of Members of this House can apply to get the card. The card will be sponsored and paid for by retailers. Nothing will come out of the defence budget. I understand that some retailers are going to offer discounts of up to 50 per cent. I know of a particular pizza chain which is prepared to offer up to 50 per cent off throughout the country. If any noble Lord would like to come and discuss it afterwards, I can reveal the name of the chain.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, today's Statement said:

"The Armed Forces covenant is not just about words, it is about actions".

However, most of today's Statement is very much long on words and generalities and rather short on specifics, and falls considerably short of the weekend's spin and hype. Nevertheless, there are a number of steps in the right direction. I want to ask my noble friend two specific questions. First, regarding the £3 million over and above the pupil premium to support state schools, he mentioned that 36,000 pupils are likely to benefit. How is this likely to be allocated? Is it going to be so much per head for service children or will schools have to bid for the allocation? Secondly, policy option five on page 32 of the Strachan report talks of encouraging Olympic involvement. Can my noble friend say anything about the involvement of service personnel, such as veterans and those who are wounded, in the coming Olympics and whether there is going to be any priority allocation of tickets? Overall, we need time to study these reports and I very much look forward to the Armed Forces Bill coming to this House when we can have a full and proper debate on the covenant.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my noble friend for his questions. It is the intention that the pupil premium for service children in state schools will cover the whole of the UK so it is broader than the pupil premium. I will have to write to my noble friend regarding how schools will bid for this.

I was looking through these different publications earlier and saw in one of them a chapter on the Armed Forces' help for the Olympics. I will have a word with the noble Lord afterwards and point it out to him.

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which has much in it to be welcomed. However, is not a key point of enshrining a requirement in law that there should be a remedy if the requirement is not met? In this case, the remedy seems to be that Ministers will have to explain themselves in Parliament. However, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, pointed out, many issues that have caused such problems for our service families over the years are outwith the control of the Ministry of Defence. I refer, for example, to their inability to get access to dental services, to their having no choice of schooling for their children, and to their losing their place on NHS waiting lists when they move with their spouses. Given that fact, and accepting that devolved authorities are a different and difficult case to which we may wish to return, and given the particular nature of the remedy in this case, will the Minister say whether the Secretaries of State for the relevant departments-for example, health and education-will be held to account in Parliament at the time of the annual report, rather than just the Secretary of State for Defence?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question. I very much hope that they will be held to account when the annual report comes out. This will cover deficiencies in any of the departments, so I hope that they will be named and shamed.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, will my noble friend elaborate on the health arrangements when injured servicemen have to go into civilian life? At present there is often a horrible gap in provision.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my noble friend for that question. Again, the issue is covered in one of these publications. We are giving a lot of thought to it and I will write to her on that issue.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

My Lords, I very much welcome the decision to have this covenant. However, is the noble Lord aware how complex this is going to get? I will give an example that has been touched on already. One of the main problems is service personnel who have been in the services for a long time, who have seen armed conflict and who come out and find it very difficult to settle. It is a question not just of housing. Consequent rates of suicide, attempted suicide, hospital admissions and prison admissions are all extraordinarily high, as the Minister knows. We ought to discuss-perhaps when we get into the detail of the Bill-whether there is not a more sophisticated role for Armed Forces charities, which could have some of the work outsourced to them. Ex-service personnel will often relate better to them than to local or national government institutions.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We always work very closely with service charities. One area that was raised by the noble and gallant Lord was that of veterans and mental health, where we work very closely with the charity Combat Stress, and with the NHS, to explore and develop appropriate models of care and support. We recently launched a 24-hour mental health helpline, run by the charity Rethink on behalf of Combat Stress, which is funded through the NHS.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

In his Statement, the Minister referred to the loss of a loved one. Will he confirm that the Government remain committed to improving the coronial system so that families are not traumatised by delayed or improperly conducted inquests, and that the principles outlined in the Coroners and Justice Act will continue, even though the exact structure is under discussion? Will the Minister confirm also that the voices of those representing people who have been bereaved through military conflict will be embedded in those reforms and will be considered; and that, should the conduct of an inquest be inadequate, there will be recourse through the local authority ombudsman?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, we take the issue of coroners very seriously. I cannot today give the noble Baroness the confirmation that she wants. Discussions are going on as we speak between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice on this issue, and the response will be apparent very soon.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat

My noble friend will recall that I wrote to his right honourable friend Mr Fox about veterans' courts, and the possibility that we could introduce them in this country in the way that they have been in certain states of the United States of America. They are courts to which veterans could apply to be heard if they get into trouble with the civil authorities. I note that the last page of the Government's response, under Annex D, "Further research required", states:

"Possible areas for further exploration include ... The profile of the service community in prison: length of service, family background, age, etc".

Does the Minister agree that the problems of veterans in prison should be pushed up the agenda rather than onto the back page of the report, and that their interests should be seriously considered by the Government?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very important question. I have not seen a copy of the letter that he sent to my right honourable friend, but I will make a point of seeking it out. The issue of veterans in prison is one that we take very seriously. We are in touch with the Home Office about that and I would welcome further discussions with my noble friend on this very important issue.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

Will my noble friend say how veterans will be informed about their benefits and privileges under the veterans' card that will be issued? Will this be done through service charities or by the Ministry of Defence?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my noble friend for that question. We have not come to a final decision. The card will not be launched until next year. It will probably be launched by the Ministry of Defence, although it will be paid for by the retailers. At this stage I cannot provide my noble friend with the answer that he wants.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, the language of "covenant" is interesting because it is both religious and legal in its history. Tying down what the covenant means is crucial. The language of the scope of the covenant is in the subjunctive: all these things "should" happen, not "must" or "will" happen. What independent monitoring of the working of the covenant is envisaged beyond reporting by a Minister to Parliament?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, that is where the external reference group comes in. It brings together representatives from across Whitehall, key service charities such as the Royal British Legion and SSAFA, the three Families Federations and representatives from the academic world. It delivers an independent judgment on the Government's efforts in supporting the Armed Forces community. I mentioned earlier Professor Hew Strachan, who is a member of the ERG which is chaired by Chris Wormald from the Cabinet Office.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement today. I agree that he has shown great support for the Armed Forces, and I know that he has found it very difficult. When I fought in the Falklands, in my naivete I felt that in the final analysis my country would look after my wife and children if things went wrong. I did not believe that a covenant was necessary. I am generally pleased that there is a covenant, but I will not be sure until I read the detail.

What I did know in the Falklands was that the capability of the weapons systems, and the sheer number of units involved, were more important to me than almost anything else. The document states that all Governments have no higher duty than defence of the realm. I do not believe that in terms of funding over the past year, the MoD has taken the top priority for spending. Will the Minister confirm that bearing in mind articles such as that today in the Times, and the fact that more money is being looked for, defence will now take the top priority among all departments for spending?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, we will certainly keep all the other departments up to speed on this. As the noble Lord said, for years Governments have talked of supporting the military, tending to focus largely on what it spends on equipment. I can assure the House that the Armed Forces covenant is about our obligations as a society to our military personnel.

Photo of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Statement from the Minister today. It is a pity that it had to go through a process in the Commons whereby the Government did a U-turn. It would have been much better not to have put themselves in that position from the beginning.

There are three documents. We have not had much time to read them, but I welcome the Statement. In many respect, the documents raise more questions than they answer. The Minister referred to the Armed Forces Bill, and we will discuss that in depth in this House, but my concern is that the content of the covenant is worthy of a full and analytical discussion in this House, quite apart from the Bill. Knowing how committed the Minister is to the welfare of our personal, I invite him to agree with me that it would be appropriate to discuss the documents we have been presented with today in a proper debate in this House in advance of the Armed Forces Bill coming before us.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The noble Baroness makes a very good point, and I will certainly take it up with the usual channels. These are very complicated publications, and there is an awful lot to absorb. That probably cannot be done just by a briefing in this House or in the Ministry of Defence, so I am very happy to consider that.

On the timing, Members of another place will have an opportunity to debate the Armed Forces Bill in the Committee of the Whole House on 14 June, and the Third Reading will be on 16 June.