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 has 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, nor 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.
Mr Speaker, 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 is doing to put this into effect. That is why I am also publishing a paper entitled ‘The Armed 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 new measures 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. I would like to record the Government’s thanks for the extremely valuable work he did. We are today publishing the Government’s full response to his report also.
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 £30M over the next four years to support joint projects, at a local level, between the Services or veterans groups and the wider community.
Mr Speaker, 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 has had to maintain a careful balance. On the one hand we don’t 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 to ensure that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent. I believe it is right that the Government is 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 3rd 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 Service life and its nature.
Secondly, the Government has always been clear to the House their commitment to consult stakeholders on the Annual Report. First, we intend to consult widely in the preparation of the report - second, 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 it, and we will publish any observations alongside the report.
We are working with the External Reference Group to update its terms of reference in line with its significant new role. The Government places 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.
Mr Speaker, 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 Coalition Government has taken a series of important measures to rebuild the Covenant. Let me mention some of them.
· We have doubled the 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 healthcare.
Mr Speaker, these measures are especially impressive when set against the background of the dire economic situation in which this Government must operate as a result of its legacy. There is much still to do. I have always been clear our commitment to rebuild the Covenant is a journey we are beginning, not something we can do overnight. And I believe that the British 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 Serving personnel, their families and veterans.
I have already mentioned the new Community Covenant Grant scheme.
We are also setting up a new fund of £3M per year, over and above the Pupil Premium arrangements, to support State schools catering for significant numbers of Service children.
We will launch a Veterans 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.
And we will increase the rate of Council Tax Relief for military personnel serving on operations overseas from 25% to 50%.
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 for Defence.
Today Ministers are chairing a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss and agree ways to improve access to housing for our service people.
The Health Secretary and I are looking forward to the report from my hon friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, on how to improve further the supply of prosthetics for injured personnel.
We will consider how to ensure the Guaranteed Income Payments made under the AFCS are not required to be used to pay for social care provided by the public sector.
Mr Speaker, 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, nor 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 to do this so that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt they owe to the Armed Forces of this country, their families and our veterans. I commend it to the House.