On Monday, 6 December, MPs will have one last opportunity to improve legislation that will strengthen the Armed Forces Covenant in law.
The Armed Forces Bill, currently before the UK Parliament, makes welcome provision for a new legal duty on public bodies to give due regard to the Covenant. However, based on our experience working with the Armed Forces community and other leading military charities, the Bill does not go far enough.
In its current form, the new duty would only apply to local councils and some limited public bodies delivering housing, health, and education. This neither reflects the reality of how the Covenant is delivered, nor the full range of issues affecting those in the Armed Forces community.
Even where services are provided locally, they are often based on national guidance. It is, therefore, a major gap for central government to be exempted from the duty that will be imposed on councils and others. That is why we welcome the significant development in the House of Lords last week, where members voted to amend this aspect of the Bill – a change that Help for Heroes has been fighting for, alongside other military charities.
As the Bill returns to the Commons, we urge the UK Government and MPs to seize this opportunity to further strengthen the Armed Forces Covenant. Such a move would be warmly welcomed by the military charity sector and be a fitting recognition of the ongoing service and sacrifice of our brave men and women, and the families who support them.
Our Views on the Armed Forces Bill
The Armed Forces Covenant has been in existence across the UK at local level for nearly ten years, with every local authority in Great Britain having made pledges of support. As a result, we have seen a significant improvement in the understanding of how service life can impact on the men and women of our Armed Forces, and how best to improve their day-to-day experiences to ensure they are not disadvantaged in accessing public or commercial services.
While the principles of the Covenant were enshrined in law in 2011, until recently there have been no consequences for public bodies disregarding these. That is why we campaigned on this issue in 2019, as part of the Veterans’ Pledge, to ensure that any future Government would make a key commitment to legislate and further enshrine the Covenant into law.
Since then, the Government’s aim has been to build on what the Covenant has achieved to date, by providing a legal basis for the principle that serving personnel, veterans, and their families should not be disadvantaged as a result of their military service.
Legislation has now been created which places a legal duty on specified public bodies, including local authorities, to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant – to ensure it carries enough weight and stature as part of the Armed Forces Bill 2021.
However, this new duty only places a focus on housing, health, and education, and does not extend to the full range of issues affecting those in the Armed Forces community, omitting important areas such as social care, employment, pensions, compensation, criminal justice, and immigration.
While the aim of the Government to consolidate the commitments set out in the Covenant have been commendable to date, we want it to go much further, as we believe in its current form, the proposed legislation is inadequate and risks creating a two-tier approach.
As well as amending the Bill to add central Government to the scope of Covenant, we also want to see a commitment that the future scope of the legislation will be widened to address all of the issues critical to veterans, and to ensure that legislation truly benefits all members of our Armed Forces community.
We will keep fighting to ensure veterans and families get the support they need and deserve.