CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

18th REPORT OF 2017–19: 'ARMED FORCES COVENANT ANNUAL REPORT 2018' (HC 1899)

Military Covenant shortcomings still unresolved, says Defence Committee

Defence Committee Press Notice – 25 September 2019

The Government has yet to tackle major concerns raised by the Defence Committee in its previous reports on the Armed Forces Covenant, according to its latest update, published today. Problems with repair and maintenance of Service accommodation, reinstatement of War Widows' Pensions, priority treatment for Veterans, and Service children’s school admissions, remain unresolved.

Defence Committee chairman, Dr Julian Lewis MP, says:

"Every year we take evidence on the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant, and every year we report similar complaints. From inadequate Service accommodation to the grotesque injustice of some war widows’ pensions, the Government is failing in its moral obligation towards those who serve or have served in our Armed Forces."

Ruth Smeeth MP, a member of the Defence Committee and Chair of the APPG on the Armed Forces Covenant, says:

"We are particularly concerned by the difficulties faced by Commonwealth personnel who wish to bring their families to the UK. If they are prepared to fight for this country, we should not make it impossible for them to have their loved ones nearby. We agree with the Army Families Federation that the current situation is immoral."

Service accommodation

The report once again highlights the Committee’s dissatisfaction with the Department’s poor performance on accommodation which remains the key problem most frequently reported to the Service Families Federations. The MoD must learn lessons from the poor record of satisfaction with repair and maintenance for Service accommodation to ensure that future contracts have a customer-focused approach and that there is more active management of the contract.

The Committee calls for the MoD to put urgent plans in place to improve the condition of Single Living Accommodation (SLA), and is requesting the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the provision of SLA.

War widows

The Committee considers it disgraceful that no progress has been made in the reinstatement of War Widows' Pension to a small cohort – between 200 and 300 people – who lost the award upon remarriage or cohabitation between 1973 and 2005. Under welcome new rules brought in by the Cameron Government, if such widows divorced their partners now, the Pension would be reinstated; and, if they then remarried them, it would not be taken away again. From this, it follows that these pensions should be reinstated without further ado, and the MoD should exert maximum pressure on the Treasury finally to put right this insulting anomaly.

Education

The link between the mobility of Service life and adverse effects on the educational attainment of Service children needs to be explored further. Data in the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report 2018 suggested that a career in the Armed Forces may damage Service children's attainment levels if they repeatedly have to change schools, as many do.

Families are still reporting difficulties regarding school admissions, and research suggests that Service children are less likely to go to university than those in the public at large. These disadvantages must be understood and addressed as a Covenant priority.

Commonwealth personnel

The report also highlights new areas of concern. On 5 November 2018, the MoD announced its intention to increase the number of non-resident Commonwealth recruits from 200 to 1,350 per year. However, a number of challenges exist for Commonwealth personnel who would like to bring their families with them to the UK including: high costs of visas, the Minimum Income Threshold and the effective communication of immigration rules.

The Committee agrees with the Army Families Federation that the treatment of Commonwealth personnel and their families is "immoral". There has been a failure adequately to acknowledge the contribution these individuals and their families make to the defence and security of the UK. It recognises that the issue of Minimum Income Threshold (MIT), visa fees and Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) are Home Office policies; but the MoD must do more to record relevant family data, in order that the extent of the problem across the Armed Forces can be fully understood.

The Committee calls on the MoD to ensure that the financial requirements laid upon personnel and their families when moving to the UK are effectively communicated at the point of recruitment, and that high-quality advice and guidance is available to those currently serving. It also calls on the new Defence Secretary to continue discussions with the Home Office in order to resolve this issue quickly.

Office for Veterans' Affairs

The Committee warmly welcomes the establishment of the Office for Veterans' Affairs and expects it to tackle the concerns expressed in this report including: priority access to NHS medical treatment; mental health provision; the implementation of the Veterans Strategy; the future financial sustainability of the Veterans Gateway; and the improved implementation of pledges across business and the community, in addition to those set out above.

[To read the full report, click here.]

* * *

REPORT SUMMARY

The principles of the Armed Forces Covenant are enshrined in law. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the whole of Government to ensure that they are being successfully communicated and implemented. This cannot be done by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) alone. We welcome the establishment of the Office for Veterans' Affairs and its shared responsibility between MoD and the Cabinet Office. We look forward to more details explaining the remit and function of the Office within the broader Covenant governance structure.

The full participation of the devolved administrations, especially through the Veterans Board, is essential in ensuring UK wide implementation of the Covenant. We call on the Government to grant full membership to Scotland and Wales immediately and extend this to Northern Ireland once a Government has been established.

We are concerned with the ongoing challenges faced by Commonwealth personnel who would like to bring their family with them to the UK. We recognise that this is a Home Office policy lead, but we would like to see the MoD improve its communication strategy with potential and serving Commonwealth personnel and continue to engage with the Home Office on this issue.

We acknowledge the work being done by the MoD in coordination with the Department for Education in supporting Service children. However, the causal relationship between the mobility of Service life and the effect on educational attainment needs to be explored further. Families are still reporting concerns over school admissions and research suggests that service children are less likely to go to university than the general population. These disadvantages must be understood and addressed as a Covenant priority.

It is disappointing that we must once again highlight our concern regarding the poor performance and serious challenges in respect of accommodation which continues to be the most frequently reported concern to the Service Families Federations. The MoD must learn lessons from the poor record of satisfaction with repair and maintenance for Service accommodation to ensure that future contracts have a customer-focused approach and that there is more active management of the contract. The MoD must put urgent plans in place to improve the condition of Single Living Accommodation (SLA). We will be asking the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the provision of SLA.

The Veterans Gateway has developed into an essential hub of advice and support for veterans and their families. However, we note that long term financial provision has not been confirmed to keep the Gateway operational. A consultation between the MoD and the Service charities sector should take place to explore potential funding options for the future.

It is a matter of deep concern that little progress has been made in the reinstatement of War Widows' Pension to a cohort who remarried or cohabitated between 1973 and 2005. The new Secretary of State for Defence must press this issue and engage urgently with the Treasury to rectify this injustice.

Our report also considers other specific issues in respect of measuring Covenant delivery: healthcare, through-life support, the Covenant in Business and the Community Covenant.

We enthusiastically support the Covenant. Our Report is intended to be a constructive contribution to its delivery, and to the achievement of its goal: that Service personnel, Veterans and the wider Armed Forces community should suffer no disadvantage as a result of pursuing or supporting a career in the Armed Forces.