Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton:
Moved by Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton
15: Clause 8, page 18, line 28, at end insert—“343AG Regional committees(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision to give committees established under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989, known as Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees, additional functions specified in the regulations relating to all former members of Her Majesty’s forces and their relevant family members, and a new name.(2) The regulations may in particular provide that it is a function of the committees—(a) to report and make recommendations to the Secretary of State on matters that are or may be relevant to—(i) their armed forces covenant report, and(ii) sections 343AA to 343AD and guidance issued under section 343AE;(b) to provide a distinct, identifiable, and independent point of reference in their region for both the veteran community and all those supporting it;(c) to raise awareness of, and support the implementation of—(i) services provided to the veteran community alone or with others,(ii) the Government’s strategy for veterans, and(iii) the terms of armed forces covenant;(d) to act as an advocate, promoter, facilitator, or communicator of services that are relevant to the veteran community;(e) to report and make representations and recommendations on existing or proposed services that are relevant to the veteran community.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to extend the statutory functions of Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees (VAPCs), currently limited to functions relating to compensation schemes for veterans and their families (the War Pensions and the Armed Forces Compensation Schemes) to all aspects of veteran life.
My Lords, I shall be brief. I apologise to your Lordships’ House for failing to remind the House of my particular interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces and therefore subject to the provisions of the Bill. I hope that Amendment 15 is uncontroversial. It relates to the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees, among which there are 13 regional committees—nine in England, two in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They were created under Section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 and are mandated to simply do two things: act on behalf of the Ministry of Defence—to be very much its eyes and ears on the ground and be an independent body that can offer candid advice to Ministers—and, equally, to support veterans. But, because of the Social Security Act 1989, they are mandated to act only in the areas of war pensions and the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. While I will not give a number for this, it applies to only a relatively small number of veterans. At their wish, this amendment simply tries to update their role to that which they are currently carrying out.
Indeed, the Government have recognised for some time that this needs to be done. When I was a Minister some seven years ago, we were potentially going to include a similar amendment in the Armed Forces Act 2016 but we did not, so I am simply trying to correct that wrong. It is important because there is a feeling that, for some years now, the Government have been advertising that they should be acting on behalf of veterans when it comes to the Armed Forces covenant—but they are not mandated to do so, and this amendment simply attempts to do that.
I recognise, however, that it is potentially a slightly clunky amendment. While the Minister can say many things, there are some things she cannot say. It would probably be much better if there were to be a government-supported Private Member’s Bill. I have no doubt there would be lots of keen champions and Members of Parliament at the other end itching to take it on. But I recognise that because due process has to be followed it may be difficult for my noble friend to be specific in supporting that today.
I am pleased that, by bringing this amendment forward in Committee, there has been progress. For example, since then terms of reference have been agreed with the VAPCs to enable them to set up an informal parallel structure so that they can begin to support veterans through the Armed Forced covenant. That will be renewed after one year. All that my amendment tries to do is empower the Secretary of State after that review after one year to put the new role on the statutory footing we have talked about for some time.
While I do not intend to divide the House on this amendment, I hope that my noble friend will be able to recognise why this is important, and that she will be able to say she will potentially look at this and that legislation may well be necessary; mind you, we have said that before. I hope that we can finally move forward on this issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, brought a similar amendment forward in Committee, which we discussed. He has made very clear why there is a case for expanding the role of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees. He seems to be exhorting various people to think about Private Members’ Bills but, as that is not the role of your Lordships’ House today, could the Minister say how far the Government would be willing to explore his ideas? Is there a neat way in which she might be able to bring forward a suitable amendment at Third Reading which means that, while he does not need to divide the House today, the intentions could be brought on to the face of the Bill?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, for tabling Amendment 15. I have not much more to add than my comments in Committee, so I will not hold up the debate for long. I again thank everyone involved with the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees across the country. These committees help to ensure that veterans and their families receive the help and care they need on pensions, allowances and other issues, and act as an important bridge between the veteran community and national government.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lancaster for retabling his amendment. I understand his motivation for doing so. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their contributions. I will not rehearse the whole structure behind the VAPCs, which my noble friend very eloquently did. I will make two points in response to him. First, for several years, VAPC members have undertaken activities that go above and beyond the scope of the statute. They have undertaken these additional activities on a non-statutory basis instead, and there have been no substantive issues with them doing so.
My second point is to acknowledge—and I hope this reassures my noble friend—that there may be ways in which we can improve on this arrangement. The Government are committed to looking again at the role of the VAPCs. That is why the MoD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs recently agreed with the chairs of the VAPCs a new set of non-statutory terms of reference to guide their activities. The terms of reference envisage that VAPC members will undertake many of the activities listed in his amendment, such as raising awareness of the strategy for our veterans and the proposed new duty to have due regard to the covenant. The terms of reference are set for an initial period of 12 months. I confirm to my noble friend that we intend to use this period and the evidence we gather during it to work with the VAPCs to review what they have done, how effective they have been in doing it, and whether and how their statutory role might need to be amended in the future.
Anticipating the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I hope my noble friend will understand why seeking to amend this Bill at the present time is premature. The Government have already set themselves on a course to review the role of the VAPCs, but we are doing this first via the introduction of new terms of reference, and we want to give the VAPCs a chance to perform under them before we take firm decisions about their longer-term future.
Legislative change may well need to follow and the evidence we gather over the coming months will help to inform us on this point. As it is, we are not sure that the legislative provision proposed in my noble friend’s amendment is necessarily the most suitable or effective way of achieving the desired outcome. For example, it would provide for only a specific and rather limited adjustment to the VAPCs’ statutory role, when instead we might want to consider more fundamental changes.
My noble friend will appreciate that I cannot speculate about the precise vehicle or timing for any future legislative change. However, I am very willing to commit to him that I and my officials will explore what changes we can make in this area and I hope that, with that reassurance, my noble friend will be content to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.