James Sunderland is a member of Aldershot Conservative Association.
The recent appointment of Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans and the introduction of the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs mark an exciting development in honouring the pledge that we owe to our Armed Forces.
But of course, the need to reset Britain’s relationship with its veterans is nothing new, and a framework already exists for societal change through the Armed Forces Covenant.
Enduring success will therefore depend on a fusion of top down (government-led) and bottom-up (local council-delivered) initiatives that place the Covenant at the forefront of our society and allow the whole country to derive maximum benefit from defence.
It may come as a surprise that there are an estimated 2.3 million ex-servicemen and women in the UK. When this significant figure is combined with family members or so-called ‘dependants’, not to mention those currently in service as either Regular or Reserve forces, here lies an influential body.
It is therefore clear to many that the Conservative Party must re-affirm its support for all serving personnel, veterans and their families, not only as the traditional party of the Armed Forces, but also as the defender of the democratic rights and freedoms that we share.
This is not just because there is so much to be gained from doing so, but also because it is the morally right thing to do. For one single veteran to be sleeping on our streets is one too many – so it is incumbent on us all to ensure that our debt to our Armed Forces is paid, and that we always show our gratitude to those who bear arms.
The Armed Forces Covenant is a brilliant document, and I commend it to anyone reading this article. It is a promise, that society must collectively acknowledge and reinforce, that our military personnel and their families should be treated with respect, dignity, and fairness by virtue of their service and the many sacrifices made. It also seeks to ensure that those who have previously served are never disadvantaged in the provision of public and commercial services compared to other citizens – this is about parity, not preference.
To date, over 4000 organisations have signed the Covenant across the UK, along with every Local Authority. But we should not be complacent, and the Office of Veteran’s Affairs will want to cut its teeth quickly by pursuing this extant agenda with even greater vigour than before. Indeed, it must ensure not only that all of the pledges being agreed are implemented correctly and fairly across society, but that the Covenant reaches new organisations and communities too.
Localism lies at the heart of success and much depends on the energy and initiative of dedicated local councillors. But here lies a potential banana skin. The loss of over 1300 council seats in May proved devastating in itself for the Conservative Party but one of its less well-known effects was the ejection of so many ‘Armed Forces Champions’ from legacy positions of responsibility.
With the Party now needing to re-build this vital influence capability, I would commend any local councillor to become an Armed Forces Champion at the first opportunity. The technical term for this winning formula is ‘no-brainer’ and further information can be found at www.armedforcescovenant.gov.uk.
So what of the wider benefits on offer through the Covenant? In 2018 alone, over £23 million of Service Pupil Premium was provided to 76,000 service children in over 10,000 schools; the Covenant Fund Trust awarded 2,600 grants to remembrance activities; over £2.5 million was awarded to 14 welfare projects supporting service families; and the new Veteran’s Support Strategy was launched by the Ministry of Defence. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as generous funding is also available for welfare, sport, housing, healthcare and community projects.
As for the future, efforts are underway to help service spouses find employment, innovative self-build schemes such as Ty Ryan in Wales are being established for ex-Service personnel, and new Civilian-Military Partnership Boards are springing up throughout the UK. New resources are also being allocated to expand our fantastic Cadet Forces. At a time of knife crime and prevalent gang culture in our cities, the Service ethos can make a tangible difference to our young people.
So in addition to reaching out to our more vulnerable veterans, the Covenant is also about social mobility, reinforcing the essential fabric of society, guiding young people, and enhancing wider opportunity – these are principles that will resonate right across the Party.
Today, it is clear that support for our Armed Services is as strong as ever – but it comes at a price. So please do help by becoming an Armed Forces Champion, getting your employer or business to sign up to the Covenant, and throwing your support behind our veterans, cadets, serving personnel, and their families. With so much at stake politically, your efforts will be a worthy investment.