Bishop of Portsmouth leads debate on welfare of armed forces and their families

portsmouth241016On the 9th January 2017, the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, led a short debate in the Lords, to ask the Government “what is their assessment of the role of the Armed Forces Covenant in ensuring that those who serve or who have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, are treated with fairness and respect.” Earl Howe, the Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence, responded on behalf of the Government. Both their speeches are reproduced below in full. The speeches of other Members in the debate can be read here.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to ask this Question and open this debate on the impact of the Armed Forces covenant. It is a privilege because, despite my day job, opportunities to talk about good news do not occur as often as you might think, and a responsibility because it is clear that there is work to be done as service personnel and their families still suffer disadvantage and do not always receive the consideration that they need. I am delighted by the range of expertise and interest of those who will be contributing this evening, albeit very briefly given the substantial and encouraging interest in the debate, and by the Minister for the personal commitment he has shown to the covenant. I await the debate and his response with eagerness.

First, the good news: those on lowest incomes in the forces have seen their wages increase despite the public sector pay freeze. Many have benefited from changes in mortgage agreements and mobile phone and broadband contracts which no longer penalise them during deployments. The advances made in healthcare at Camp Bastion are now mirrored by specialist centres, particularly in Birmingham. Also, partly as a result of the excellent e-Learning for Healthcare module, there is increasing awareness in general practice of both the needs of service personnel and the special access to healthcare available to them.

Service pupil premium payments have enabled schools to fund projects which support the children of forces families. A superb example of this can be found a short distance from my own home in the diocese I serve. The Crofton Cabin was built with a £20,000 grant. It provides a space for children to Skype parents while they are overseas and specialist counselling to help with the stress of deployments. Home life has been improved for many through the £68 million spent on improving and upgrading accommodation, and 9,000 families have bought their own homes through the Help to Buy scheme. The covenant has helped to raise awareness in the business sector of the needs and opportunities presented by service personnel both as customers and as future employees.

The ripple effect of the covenant should not be underestimated. Only last month the Karimia mosque in Nottingham signed up and ushered in a wave of Muslim-owned businesses that are now contributing to supporting members of the military. By signing, that mosque is encouraging this young community to play its role in defending its country, and making clear how much it values those who serve. This appreciation is vital and much deserved, not just for work done overseas but for the invaluable assistance provided by service personnel during emergencies here—for instance, following the floods.

Where is change still needed and where should we look for further improvement? There have been undoubted improvements in surgical care and rehabilitation for physical injuries, but mental health care provision lags behind. It depends on a health service which has been underfunded in this area. Despite the Prime Minister’s welcome announcement today, mental health provision is strained at best and provision for military personnel is often less than adequate. Can the Minister give us reassurance on the way this essential provision can be better delivered? This applies with as much or greater force to reservists, who are increasingly important to the Armed Forces yet are scattered and less visible. Can the Minister reassure the House on the awareness of the Government as regards the special challenges of this remarkable group?

Mental health problems are known to put a strain on relationships, and it sadly remains the case that the divorce rate among military families is double that of the civilian world. However, it is likely that mental health is not the only reason for that, when the main reason cited by those leaving the forces is the impact of their job on family life. A crucial part of that is where you live. Jesus said:

“Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.

He is therefore not my primary source of advice for what makes for good housing but, like the Armed Forces, the Church has a great deal of experience with housing its people and is aware of the impact of poor housing on morale. The Public Accounts Committee in the other place concluded that families have been let down by the inadequate performance of CarillonAmey. Accommodation remains by far the number one issue reported to the families federations, and service personnel will welcome reassurance from the Minister, if he is able to help today, about the Government’s appreciation of the concern about this and how it will be addressed.

Service personnel can also be disadvantaged when they leave. The variable interpretation of the Armed Forces community covenant scheme by local government means that ex-service personnel and their families are still sometimes faced with the hurdle of “local connection” to overcome before they are housed. There are examples of good practice but at best the situation is patchy. What encouragement can the Government and indeed the rest of us give to raise the level of local government understanding and action?

Family life is of course wider than the house you live in, and it is unfair that those seeking to adopt children, and those seeking to get their children into new schools, still face huge hurdles because of the special circumstances of service life. I hope the schools admission problem might be adequately addressed by the Children of Armed Services (Schools Admission) Bill, which is to be debated for the second time later this month in the House of Commons. Perhaps the Minister could indicate if the Government have sympathy and if they perhaps plan to reduce and remove these problems.

The principle of the covenant is that those who serve in the Armed Forces and their families should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. For that to be the case, there has to be a clear understanding of what is fair and achievable. Communication of these aims has been helped by an improved website, covenant champions and access to the gateway, but this is an ongoing task, not a once-only one. Both local government and business need to train new members of staff as well as reminding their existing staff about the key features of the covenant and its implications. We are talking here about a culture not of entitlement or advantage but of fairness and equity.

As I resume my place—within time—and await your Lordships’ speeches with anticipation, I remind the House that the covenant has admirably begun to redress injustice, unfairness and disadvantage. We all need to ensure that none of us fails to pay due respect to the men and women, with their families, who are prepared to lay down their lives in our protection.

Earl Howe: My Lords, before I respond, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Scott Hetherington of 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died while on operations in Iraq on Monday 2 January 2017.

The covenant is a big subject and time is unfortunately short, but I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth for securing this debate and providing us with the opportunity to examine how effectively we, as a nation, are repaying the very great debt that we owe to our brave service personnel and their families. This is a debt that we can never repay in full, but we can at least begin to honour it by ensuring that those who sacrifice so much in our defence are treated with fairness and respect.

That is exactly why the Armed Forces covenant was introduced—to set down, unequivocally and in law, the nation’s pledge that former and current members of our Armed Forces—including reservists—and their families, should suffer no disadvantage because of their service to our nation and that special provision may be appropriate for those who have given so much, such as the injured or bereaved. That is why we are working tirelessly across government to implement and improve the Armed Forces covenant, drawing together society so that we can all fulfil our moral obligation to our military family.

A seminal part of that process is, of course, the publication of the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report. It is a definitive guide to the covenant that outlines its key principles and achievements, explains what actions have been undertaken over the past 12 months and sets out targets for the coming year. The fifth and most recent report was published just last month, on 15 December, and I am delighted that it demonstrated considerable progress across government in the work that we are doing to support service personnel, their families and veterans, most notably in the key areas of healthcare, education and accommodation.

For example, 2016 saw NHS England launch its veterans’ trauma network, a new system to provide an extra level of support for trauma-recovering veterans and transitioning service personnel, so that their specific and lifelong healthcare needs are met more efficiently. Meanwhile, the Department of Health has developed a new integrated personal care for veterans system to help the most seriously injured service personnel and veterans transition into civilian life. In the devolved Administrations, NHS Scotland established 19 Armed Forces champions, while the Welsh Government provided annual funding of £585,000 to Veterans NHS Wales to improve support and treatment for veterans suffering from mental health issues.

On education, the Department for Education allocated around £22 million in service pupil premium payments to support the pastoral needs of over 73,000 service pupils in state schools in England, and it changed the rules for student funding so that service personnel and their families can now access student funding for distance learning courses while posted overseas. On accommodation, the Department for Communities and Local Government extended the period within which ex-service personnel and surviving partners are given priority for government-funded shared ownership schemes from 12 to 24 months after service.

Those are only some of the cross-government achievements, but they all serve as examples of just how far we have come since the Armed Forces Act 2011 enshrined the covenant into law. The challenge now is to build on this momentum, which is why the Government are establishing a new inter-ministerial group ensuring that all government departments continue to work together to fulfil the covenant vision. But it goes without saying that the MoD’s efforts remain central to achieving all of this and my department continues to work hard to galvanise each and every one of us into action, as the House would hope and quite rightly expect.

Let me turn now to exactly what defence has been up to over the past year. Last year saw the launch of a new UK Armed Forces families strategy setting out how we intend to improve the lives of service families in the round by addressing issues including housing, employment, education, health and welfare. The strategy is underpinned by an action plan, developed alongside the single services and families federations, and a £4 million commitment over the next two years to fund projects supporting families of service personnel in times of crisis or distress.

When it comes to supporting our veterans community, I am glad to reassure my noble friend Lady Scott and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, that the MoD is working closely with the Office for National Statistics and the Chief Statistician to include a question on veterans in the national census so that there will be a fuller picture of where former service personnel are in the UK. The Armed Forces Covenant Fund has £10 million each year to support the covenant by funding projects that address specific priorities, one of those being the creation of a veterans’ gateway. The aim of the initiative is to provide a single point of contact via a fully transactional website, mobile app and telephone number which will help veterans of all ages find and access specific advice and support for a whole host of issues.

That said, I should stress that most service leavers continue to make a smooth transition to civilian life. The Career Transition Partnership provides one-to-one guidance, training and employment opportunities to about 15,000 service leavers. Its success rate is significant: 95% of those who want to find employment do so within six months of leaving the Armed Forces, which compares to a 73% employment rate in the rest of the UK population. All personnel, without exception, are eligible for this support for two years after their date of discharge.

Underpinning this work on veterans and families is a concerted drive to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the covenant are applied correctly and consistently across the UK. Our goal is that anyone from the Armed Forces family based anywhere in the UK should know what they can expect from local authorities and their partners in the local community in terms of support and services. At the same time, front-line staff in any local authority should know just what is expected of them under the covenant. This is not always the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, rightly noted.

With this is mind, the Local Government Association, in partnership with the Forces in Mind Trust, last year commissioned a review with more than 400 representatives of local authorities to identify areas of good practice and create a covenant toolkit. This will help to raise the standard of covenant delivery across the UK. As I speak, the covenant team is developing an action plan to implement the recommendations of that review across the UK. And on the subject of consistency across the UK, to address a point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Rogan, I am delighted that the Northern Ireland Executive recently reached a consensus on sending a representative to the Cabinet Office-chaired Covenant Reference Group—a body that is key to co-ordinating the efforts of all covenant stakeholders across the nation.

At a more tactical level, the MoD has been working to resolve some of the practical difficulties encountered by our service personnel in their day-to-day lives, particularly in the commercial field. For example, in a victory for common sense, 47 of the UK’s biggest banks and building societies have now signed up to an initiative that will mean that service personnel posted away from home will be able to rent out their property without having to change to a buy-to-let mortgage, saving them time and money. Meanwhile, 86% of the UK’s motor insurance industry has now committed to waive cancellation fees and preserve no-claims discounts for up to three years when personnel and their families are posted abroad. More than 1,300 businesses and organisations have now signed the Armed Forces covenant.

Finally the team has been focusing on a subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean: improving communication about the covenant. Trying to co-opt the whole of society into delivering our covenant vision is nigh on impossible, as she said, if people do not understand what is being asked of them. Likewise, ensuring that members of our military family can take full advantage of the covenant is impossible if they do not know what is on offer. So 2016 saw a rebranding of the Armed Forces covenant. In April we launched a new website to make information about the covenant easier to find. On the ground, we saw the introduction of a 200-strong network of Armed Forces covenant champions across Armed Forces units. These military champions act as the focal point for their local community, helping to deliver information about the covenant directly to personnel and their families.

I will try to answer as many questions raised by noble Lords as I can. I will write on those that I do not address. I am happy to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that there has been no softening of the Government’s primary statement, which refers both to fair treatment and to no disadvantage.

The right reverend Prelate raised mental health. The best available evidence suggests that the mental health of veterans is as good as or better than that of the rest of the civilian population—but where problems occur, the highest standard of support is made available. More than £13 million from the LIBOR fund has been awarded to programmes specifically supporting mental health in the Armed Forces community.

A number of noble Lords referred to accommodation. We continue to invest in improving accommodation for our people and their families. Standards have significantly improved. Regarding social housing for service leavers, the MoD works closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that service personnel do not experience any disadvantage as a result of their military service when applying for social housing. The MoD referral scheme assists service leavers and their families with social housing applications following discharge.

Considerable help is available on education and schools for service children; I will write on that subject. My noble friend Lady Sugg rightly emphasised the contribution of Armed Forces families and spouses. Again, I will write on that subject.

I listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Blencathra on the Northern Ireland legacy issues. I can tell him before I write that the Defence and Northern Ireland Secretaries are working to create a Stormont House Agreement Bill to ensure that veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked whether I could give reassurance that the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Committee will be able to continue its good work. I cannot commit funding from the Dispatch Box at the moment, but I will find out the details and write to him.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about the composition of war pensions and compensation tribunals. I have today written to the noble and gallant Lord on this subject. In brief, it is something that we will look at as part of the wider MoJ-led transformation of tribunals. It is very much a matter in its focus.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asked about harmony guidelines. We are working to ensure that the three services’ harmony guidelines are met, but I fear there will continue to be occasions when that is not possible. Our job is to minimise those occasions and that is what we are trying to do.

My time is up. I hope that the House will accept that a great deal is going on. There is more that we can do and room for improvement, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to work with all our partners on removing disadvantage, instilling fairness and respect, and meeting the unique needs of our Armed Forces community.


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