William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.
The Conservative Party is a broad church but one of the core areas that unites us is support for our armed forces and a belief in the importance of a strong national defence.
Progress has been made, but we must do more to support the military community. The Armed Forces Covenant must be further enhanced and strengthened so that it has a greater force of law.
The Covenant articulates that the nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces Community in return for the sacrifices they endure. The armed forces community includes regular personnel, reservists, veterans, and immediate families. Specifically, the Covenant outlines two core principles:
- No disadvantage: no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families, should be at a disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
- Special consideration: special consideration is appropriate in some cases, particularly for those who have been injured or bereaved.
That these goals should be a key pillar of Conservative thinking on defence should not be in question. The Conservative Party would stray considerably from its proper philosophical and moral course were it pursue anything other than a full-throated advocacy of support for ex-servicemen and armed forces personnel.
In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto our party was elected to government on a promise to fix the covenant that had been let fall into ‘disrepair’ by Labour. Writing on ConservativeHome, James Sunderland, now MP and supporter of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, said “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.”
The party’s backbenchers and Cabinet appear in agreement that defence spending and focus must be a priority and the announcement of an additional £24.1 billion funding is welcome.
The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of a principle. It does not itself infer legal obligations and rights on members of the community. Instead, it is referred to by laws which may require it to be taken into account, and is a governing pillar for the body politic. The Secretary of State for Defence must make an annual report to Parliament on the government’s progress in honouring the Covenant. In particular the Defence Secretary must have regard to the following:
- The unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
- The principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and
- The principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.
The Armed Forces Covenant Fund was launched in 2015 with a budget of £10m a year to support “mutually beneficial projects and programmes being delivered by organisations across the UK in partnership with the Armed Forces Community”. It supports the obligation that the Covenant represents through four broad funding areas: removing barriers to family life; extra support after service for those that need help; measures to integrate military and civilian communities; and non-core healthcare services for veterans.
One of Boris Johnson’s first actions as Prime Minister was the establishment of the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA), led by Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence People and Veterans jointly with the Cabinet Office. In its first year the OVA launched a new railcard for veterans, a scheme to provide guaranteed interviews in the civil service for veterans, plans for a National Insurance Holiday for employers who hire veterans, and prioritisation of veterans for new homes.
The establishment of the OVA supports the cross-Whitehall approach that the Covenant represents. It is telling that the ministerial responsibilities straddle both the MoD and the Cabinet Office signalling a continued entrenchment of the Covenant in policy formulation in every Department. This is a welcome step in furthering the goals of the Covenant.
It would be beneficial to the continued impact of the OVA if its mission were treated in a way similar to other overarching, cross-departmental themes of the Government. The Armed Forces Community is impacted by the decisions of every Department and it is right that the political sponsorship of this is significant. To enhance this, a useful addition would be a focused team of political and non-political advisers similar to those tasked with taking forward other thematic priorities, including the ‘levelling up’ agenda.
Local authorities are a key deliverer of services to the beneficiaries of the Covenant. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) report ‘Our Community – Our Covenant: Improving the Delivery of Local Covenant Pledges’ provided concerning insight into the delivery of this service at a local level.
Of the Council Chief Executives surveyed by the LGA, 48 per cent reported that they had a good understanding of the Covenant, and 39 per cent a moderate understanding. Perhaps even more concerning is that the same report found that almost a quarter of surveyed members of the Armed Forces Community felt that their local authority did not understand their needs.
In areas with higher visibility of the armed forces in the community the local authority tended to be better at folding the Covenant into their decisions. However, a post-code lottery of council awareness is simply not good enough.
Over the last decade, the Armed Forces Covenant’s scope and impact has increasingly benefitted from the political sponsorship of the Conservative Party in Government. This looks set to continue apace. Service provision areas of high impact for the Covenant are being brought into law in order to strengthen the existing framework of regard for its principles.
As this progress continues it will be increasingly necessary to focus on those parts of public services that are most complex, unwilling to change, or unaware of the specific requirements of the Armed Forces Community. To achieve the ultimate aims of the Covenant, it will be necessary to maintain the political trajectory that recent defence announcements have signalled and to root out areas of poor performance in local authorities and service providers.
Fundamentally, the Covenant seeks to apply some very simple principles to an incredibly complicated legal and governmental landscape. It must therefore be an ongoing project and a living commitment.
A longer version of this article appears in Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces’ new Policy Pamphlet.