Dr Andrew Murrison is the MP for South West Wiltshire. He is also the author of Tommy this, an’ Tommy that: The Military Covenant.
This Prime Minister ‘gets’ the military covenant. In June last year aboard HMS Ark Royal in Halifax Nova Scotia in his "Ark of the Covenant" speech David Cameron set out the importance he attaches to the welfare of the Service community. A train of covenant-related policy initiatives and tangibles in the ensuing 18 months have followed rhetoric with action. Number 10 has from the start been very open to advocates for men and women in uniform who are prevented from pressing their own case. They have this week been expressing their support for the government’s announcement of a ministerial committee to oversee the military covenant.
The Armed Forces Act writes the covenant into statute. It requires a report on the health of the covenant every year by the Secretary of State for Defence and we have seen the first one this week. It is a daunting task since government delivery on the issues the report deals with is heavily dependent not just on the MoD but on departments and agencies over which the Defence Secretary has no direct control. For the covenant is everybody’s business – from healthcare, education and local government to the criminal justice system and right across the public domain.
David Cameron has recognised that discharging our obligations under the military covenant demands a multi-disciplinary, cross-departmental approach. In preparing my reports on the healthcare of Service personnel and veterans, Fighting Fit and A Better Deal for Military Amputees, the recommendations from which are being implemented now, it became obvious very quickly that the solutions were located much further afield than the MoD. A quick glance through the handbook of COBSEO, the umbrella organisation for Service charities, shows the range of interests of its 180 member organisations that spans right across the public policy arena involving most departments of state in one way or another.
Paradoxically, the minister responsible for the welfare of Service personnel and veterans has traditionally been pegged at the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder. This is despite the fact that, by far and away, the most important element in defence is the individual sailor, soldier and airman. Keeping them in good shape and good heart is an awesome responsibility for which a succession of, very able and no doubt frustrated, ministers has not been given the clout and budgetary mechanisms to readily effect change across the public sphere. The cross-departmental ministerial committee announced this week is a neat solution.