Examination of Witnesses (Questions 290-366)
Q290 Chair: Good morning. Welcome
to the evidence stage of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces
Bill. We are very grateful to you for coming to give evidence.
There are two sessions this morning involving different groups
of charities. Could you begin by introducing yourselves for the
Chris Simpkins: Good morning,
ladies and gentlemen. I am Chris Simpkins, Director General of
the Royal British Legion.
Bryn Parry: Bryn Parry, Chief
Executive of Help for Heroes.
Tony Stables: I am Tony Stables.
I am the Chairman of COBSEO, which is the Confederation of Service
Charities. I am also the Chairman of the Trustees of Headley Court
and a member of the War Pensions Appeal Tribunal, so I have a
fairly broad veteran perspective.
Q291 Chair: COBSEO comprises which
Tony Stables: In total, it comprises
some 180 charities and associations, including all the major Service
funds and charities. Its board of 13 directors comprises the chief
executives of the major funds and charities in the Service charitable
sector. For example, my colleagues from the Royal British Legion
and from Help for Heroes are both members of the executive board.
Q292 Chair: So the Royal British
Legion is doubly represented here this morning.
Tony Stables: As indeed is Help
Q293 Chair: I have a fairly general
opening question. Please do not feel obliged to answer all of
the questions, particularly if you think the thing you were going
to say has already been said. That will help us make progress.
In what ways do you think the Bill will have
an impact on the well-being of Service personnel and their families?
Were you consulted when the Bill was drafted in the first place?
Chris Simpkins: I am happy to
begin, Chairman. In response to your latter question, no, the
Royal British Legion did not participate in the drafting of the
Bill. We have two major issues, which are fairly well known. The
first is in relation to the statusindeed, if it has any
status at the momentof the often-referred-to Military Covenant.
I refer back to the commitment that the Prime Minister gave last
June, of which I am sure members of the Committee are aware, to
enshrine the Military Covenant in law in some way. I am sure I
don't need to quote, but it is very clear from what the Prime
Minister said what his intentionand, I assume, the Government's
intentionwas at that time. Clearly, things have moved on
Indeed, from the comments that the Royal British
Legion has received over the past few days from serving Members
of the Armed Forces, and from young and old veterans, is that
the Prime Minister's statement had a positive impact at the time.
It was therefore a surprise on publication of the Bill that an
enshrined form of the Covenantor at least, as I would put
it, principles that such a Covenant should satisfyis absent
from the provisions of clause 2.
The second issue is how any Covenant might be
examined and reported. The provision in the Bill is for such a
report to be produced annually by the Secretary of State, and
placed before Parliament and subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
While we don't doubt the intentions and good faith of Parliament
to respect the needs of the Armed Forces and support themparticularly
now during a period of intense operational activity with all its
familiar resultsit is rather odd that the Secretary of
State can determine what he includes and excludes from that Report.
While that will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, there is
no provision in the Bill for any independent input as stated in
the Bill. I understand that behind the scenes there is the intention
to do that, but we believe that it is something that should be
recorded statutorily. Together with other things that are happening
in relation to the Armed Forces, this is having a harmful impact.
Although, of course, we understand the constraints
on public sector expenditure, this is ultimately a matter of priorities.
This group is the only group of people in the country who contract
with the State to lay down their lives on behalf of the State.
We believe that the other side of the contract, and what the State
contracts towards those individuals, represented by Parliamentarians,
should equally be given some statusbetter statusin
law. There is no better opportunity than that currently presented
by the Bill.
Q294 Chair: Thank you. The comments
you have made are things that we will be exploring during the
course of the morning.
Tony Stables: We will later determine
the Covenant and the position of independent reporting, and perhaps
even the definition of a veterannot by the one day. The
debate recently in both Houses has looked at the question of whether
the veteran is more than a citizen, a citizen-plus, or whether
we take the position that they should not be disadvantaged. If
we come back to these later, the answer to your first questions
is no, we were not consulted.
Q295 Chair: Okay. That was really
the second question. The first question was: how do you think
this Bill will impact on Service families?
Tony Stables: I think that the
Families Federations, which will give evidence later, will be
better placed than I to answer that. In looking at the Service
communitythis is where we have some difficulty with the
Covenantin my view, it comes down to four components: Members
of serving Armed Forces, their familiesand defining a family
is difficult in itselfthe bereaved and the veteran. They
are four very distinct groupings within what we regard as the
Armed Forces community. It is very difficult to address all those
individually. You can do that in some kind of generic sense, but
often if you do it in a generic sense as a whole, you tend to
water down the effect.
It is very easy in the Armed Forces Bill to
refer to the relationship between the State and Members of the
Armed Forcesit seems very clear to me. Actually, the relationship
between the State and the bereaved is relatively clear, while
that between the State and the family is less clear because of
the definition of the family. The relationship between the State
and the veteran is a debate that we haven't hadagain, I
refer to recent debates in both Houses, and the debate about whether
the veteran comes under, "Not disadvantaged by Service",
or under, "More than a citizen," we may come back to
a bit later.
Q296 Chair: Thank you. Bryn Parry.
Bryn Parry: Just to make it clear
from the Help for Heroes perspective, when we set up, we werewe
still area fundraising organisation motivated by a simple
desire to help the Members of the Armed Forces who were injured
in conflict. Therefore, we set out to not have any political or
critical angle, and I am therefore ill-equipped to comment. I
am happy to talk personally about the people I meet and the services
and support I see they get. That would be where I would come from.
I believe that, rather as Chris said, the Covenant
talks about the relationship that we have with our Armed Forces,
and whether or not it is enshrined in law, the most important
thing is the unique nature of military service. I think it was
Theodore Roosevelt who said, "A man who is good enough to
shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square
deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled to, and less
than that no man shall have." In order for the man to have
the best support, he needs to get it from both Government and,
I believe, the people of this country. Therefore, we need to facilitate
and make it easy for us all to work in partnership.
Speaking as someone from a non-charitable background,
I had no idea I would be sitting here three years later. I have
been part of an extraordinary thing, where people have donated
up to £86 million, and all of that has been spent or allocated.
The most difficult part of that has been seeing the swift delivery
of that money in support of Members of our Armed Forces. From
my point of view, if there were a way to cut through bureaucracy
and ensure that people in the charitable sector, in different
Departments in the Government and the Armed Forces can all work
together cohesively and positively, that would be tremendous.
Q297 Chair: So would you say that
the greatest constraint in the way of Help for Heroes is Government
Bryn Parry: I am afraid to say,
Chris Simpkins: May I add a point
of clarification in relation to the Covenant, though I do not
think this was the intention of your question? We have been consulted
on a draft form of a non-statutory Covenant. Perhaps we will come
to that, as we do have observations on it.
Chair: We will come to that during the
Q298 Mr Robathan: To follow that
up with Mr Simpkins, the External Reference Group and charitiescertainly
two of youhave been consulted on the Covenant and the guidance
to the Covenant. Mr Simpkins, you said that you thought the Covenant
was not being incorporated in the law, but isn't this the first
occasion ever that the Covenant has been mentioned in a statutory
sense? Don't you think that Parliament, which, after all, represents
the people of this country, holding the Government to account,
is quite a major step?
Chris Simpkins: I suspectindeed,
I knowthat one of the responsibilities of Parliament is
to hold the Government of the day to account on every single matter
in the management and governance of the country. The fact is,
I believe, that a specific Covenant clearly is not referred to
in statute. It is referred to in relation to the Army, but again
not in law. There is a reference in clause 2 of the Bill to a
Covenant, but it does not say what is the purpose of the Covenant.
The only reference is in relation to a requirement on the Secretary
of State to report on the Covenant. As I mentioned earlier, as
currently drafted, it is for the Secretary of State to decide
what is and is not included in such a report. That is clearly
a situation where we would have in most circumstances the Ministry
of Defence reporting on itself.
It is a common and increasing convention of
governance and Government these daysand an expectation
of the people of the countrythat transparency is a principle
to which we all aspire and commit to. That suggests to me that
there should be an open and independent element to any such report,
particularly in this case in relation to the Armed Forces, which
are so important and held in such high regard by the Nation.
Q299 Mr Robathan: I agree, but
aren't you an independent member of the External Reference Group?
Chris Simpkins: I am.
Q300 Mr Robathan: So you will
feel constrained and unable to make any comments on the report
Chris Simpkins: No, I would not
feel constrained at all. The point is that the Secretary of State
is not required in the Bill to take account of them or publish
Chair: We will come back to all of these
issues during the morning.
Q301 Bob Russell: Mr Simpkins,
Mr Jones and I served on the last Armed Forces Bill Committee,
and I think the last Government can be congratulated on making
many things better for Members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
I take the Bill to be a continuation of an understanding in the
21st century that we have to regard our military personnel, past
and present, and their families in a more enlightened way than
in the past. Would you accept that perhaps, like the British constitution,
if you don't have a rigid wording of the Military Covenant, it
may be stronger for Members of Parliament then to take things
forward item by item, rather than having a rigid legal framework?
Chris Simpkins: Yes, I would accept
that; but in so doing, I would also apply a condition. The condition
is that the principles of a Covenant should be enshrined; otherwise,
what are we talking about? Who knows what it is we are measuring
against? As the Minister said, we have been consulted on the draft
Covenant that has been produced so far. I would make it clear
that we have made representations on that draft, and I certainly
have views on its contents that I am happy to express, because
it is not fit for purpose, in our view.
Q302 Bob Russell: But there is
work in progress, and you have heard the Minister's question and
you are hearing minethis is all on the record. We can build
on your comments and, hopefully, incorporate the thrust in the
Bill, without it being rigidly written down. My concern is that
if things are too rigid, they will be more harmful than helpful.
Chris Simpkins: I understand the
point about rigidity, specific definition and a detailed Covenant
being included in law. I am not making that point at all. What
I am saying is that the principles of which a Covenant should
take account should be clearly stated and understood.
Q303 Chair: And from what you
are saying, that is possible to do, and you are being consulted
in the External Reference Group as to what the outcome of at least
a Military Covenant should include.
Chris Simpkins: We are being consulted
on both a Military Covenant and proposed guidance; we are not
being consulted on principles that should be included in statute.
Our point is that it should be possible to identify a short set
of principlesforgive me for repeating myselfthat
could and should be enshrined in law.
Q304 Chair: I see. Right.
Chris Simpkins: Principlesnot
three pages of text.
Chair: That is perfectly clear. Thank
Q305 Mr Jones: This has been spun
in the last few weeks as enshrining the Military Covenant, which
clearly it does not. Do you think it is a bit odd that we have
the Armed Forces Bill before us now, when we have been told this
week that the Government are still working on the Covenant? Do
you think the opportunity has been missed to put the Covenant
and the principles that you referred to, Mr Simpkins, in the Bill?
Chris Simpkins: The answer to
that is very straightforward, given my earlier answers: yes, that
opportunity is being lost. Clearly, to take up the point Mr Russell
made, society does develop and progress. We have to have a dynamic
process that respects that progression. Another point, which I
failed to mention earlier, is that we would like to see, in recording
the principles in statute, a commitment for the Secretary of State
to undertake a quinquennial review of the application of that
Covenant and of whether it remains valid in a developing society
and to engage in a process of public consultation in conducting
Q306 Mr Jones: The Green Paper
that I produced set out some of the principles and issues that
could become legally enforceable, but we are getting conflicting
evidence. The Minister said the other day that the election more
or less binned that, but we also had evidence the other day from
Bill Rollo, who suggested that it had somehow been taken into
account. In terms of formulating this Bill, could you explain
exactly what involvement you and other Service charities and stakeholders
have had in deciding what is in the Bill?
Chris Simpkins: I can only speak
personally. The Royal British Legion has had no involvement that
I am aware of.
Q307 Mr Jones: Can I ask how many
times the Minister has met you since May?
Chris Simpkins: The Royal British
Legion or the External Reference Group?
Q308 Mr Jones: Well, you, and
the Royal British Legion.
Chris Simpkins: Three or four
Q309 Mr Jones: So on none of those
occasions were the contents of the Bill discussed with the Royal
Chris Simpkins: Not of the Bill,
although we had brief discussions at a very early stage about
the concept and review of the Covenant.
Q310 Mr Jones: What about COBSEO?
Tony Stables: We have not had
detailed discussions. We should be clear about the External Reference
Group, which, after all, was established in its present form to
guide through the delivery of the recommendations of the Service
Command Paper. That is what it is there for. It is a cross-Government
group, populated by and large by two-star advocates from all Government
Departments. I judge it to have been a great success. Not only
has it actually delivered on the recommendations of the Service
Command Paper but it has promoted bilateral and trilateral relationshipsboth
with the Service charitable sector and other Government Departmentswhich
did not exist before. I particularly pay tribute to the Department
of Health, which I think has really grasped this initiative, and
I look forward to the further measures that it will be developing
during 2011. So it has been a remarkably successful Group to deliver
that. The Group was charged, as you are well aware, to report
annually to the Prime Minister, and that it has done. There is
a question mark over whether the External Reference Group is truly
independent. Clearly, with a majority of its members being civil
servants, it is difficult to argue that it was independent. Nevertheless,
there is an independent element of it. We will come back to reporting,
if we may.
May I just answer the question on the Covenant?
I spent some 42 years in the Royal Air Force, retiring in 2006.
I do not think that the "Covenant" was a word that I
had ever come across. It is a relatively recent word that seems
to be kicked around the football field and nodded around the sky
without any meaning whatever, or any understanding of what it
is. To enshrine it in a Bill before we have a clear understanding
of what the word is and what it means to people, particularly
when the overuse of the word, to my mind, raises expectations
in people, seems wholly irresponsible. We have to go back to the
start point and determine what it actually is.
If I may refer again to the External Reference
Group, I regard the paper that was put before the Group for discussion
of the Covenant as an early first draft and nothing more than
that. We debated and discussed it. Frankly, I have not even seen
yet the minutes of the meeting where we discussed the paper. It
is in its very early and embryonic stages, but it would benefit,
in my view, from someone standing back and perhaps some academic
discipline being brought to say, "What exactly is this Covenant?
What do we want to achieve by it?" and "How are we going
to deliver it?" In a general sense, I agree with my colleague,
Mr Simpkins from the Royal British Legion, that if you look at
the diverse nature of the Armed Forces community, I cannot see
that it can be anything other than a generic document. Unless
you have an enormous document that covers every eventuality in
legislation, I frankly cannot see how you can address the Serviceman
or woman who leaves one day into Service to the person at the
end of the spectrum. It is too wide a spectrum, frankly.
Q311 Mr Jones: But we are not
starting from fresh. We had the Green Paper and the published
responses to it, so there is groundwork to take into consideration.
It seems that's been parked to one side after the Election.
Tony Stables: I wouldn't disagree.
Q312 Mr Jones: I do not think
that we are starting with a blank sheet of paper. Can I ask about
the External Reference Group? I know it will be covered later.
We moved a good way with the reference group in the way it was
involved in Lord Boyce's review of the Armed Forces Compensation
Scheme. It had an independent chair and independent members. Do
you think that in drawing up this Report, and making Government
be held to account, a more independent element of that Reference
Group in drawing up the Report would be helpful?
Tony Stables: Interestingly enough,
at the last meeting of the External Reference Group, we came to
the view, largely driven by Mr Simpkins' suggestion, that perhaps
those around the table were not those who were actually delivering
the service. And it is true; in many cases, particularly in the
veteran arena, it is local authorities who are delivering the
service. It is Primary Care Trusts, or GP fundholder groupings,
or whatever they may be called in the future, that are delivering
the service, not the Department of Health. Certainly, one of the
difficulties we have in the veteran arena is ensuring consistency
of delivery across the piece. While you may have a clear undertaking
for the Department of Health and other Departments, they do not
control the delivery points. If you move the External Reference
Group forward as aI hesitate to use the word "independent"cross-Government
grouping, which in my view has been fantastically successful,
you probably have to move away from Government Departments in
London and engage more with the organisations that are delivering
the service. We have done the protocols and we have done the agreements
at the national level; we now need to deliver at the local level.
Chris Simpkins: Chairman, may
I give a point of clarification on Mr Jones's reference to the
AFCS review? That review was conducted by Lord Boyce and supported
by an independent group of people; it was not actually the External
Reference Group. There happened to be some commonality of personalities,
but just for the sake of accuracy, it wasn't the External Reference
Group. But the group that was constructed and appointed to assist
Lord BoyceI can speak only from personal experienceachieved
fantastic success. While the purpose of the Group was to assist
and advise Lord Boyce, and quite clearly, it was Lord Boyce's
report on the review of the AFCS, I think he would accept that
there was not a single point of disagreement between all those
around the table. It was a remarkable success for a group of people
made up of charities, academics and specialists in their clinical
Q313 Gemma Doyle: Mr Stables,
you flagged up the issue that in many cases, it will be a local
authority delivering some of the services, for example, in housing
or education. Of course, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,
we have another level of administration.
The Bill Team advised us that they thought the
Secretary of State would be coming to Parliament to report on
how these matters were working in the Devolved Administrations.
That seems very strange to me, because I would not be able to
ask the Secretary of State a question about health care in Scotland,
nor should he or she be expected to respond. Do you have any sense
of how that would work in practice?
Tony Stables: I could not possibly
comment on how it might work in practice; frankly, I cannot see
how it can work in practice. If we are proposing that the Secretary
of State for Defence now reports on all matters Armed Forces community,
embracing the work of the Department of Health, the Department
for Work and Pensions and the Devolved Administrations, that seems
to me quite a comprehensive report. I am not wholly convinced
that those responsible in Scotland and the Devolved Administrations
will easily allow the Secretary of State to put his name to their
work, nor indeed would the Service charitable sector. We have
not really determined what an independent report, or what the
Secretary of State, can report on. The Secretary of State reports
on, as is proposed in the draft Bill, I think, the Armed Forces
community's health care, education and housing. Are we talking
about health care, education and housing of Members of the Armed
Forces, or are we talking about Members of the Armed Forces community?
It is not clear to me.
I think the Secretary of State for Defence can
quite rightly and properly report on all matters affecting Members
of the Armed Forces, but if you widen that to the Armed Forces
community, I fail to see how he can do it.
Q314 Christopher Pincher: The
one component of the Bill that will be legally enforceable is
the requirement on the Secretary of State to produce his report
on the three great pillarshealth care, housing and education.
Do you think that they are the right core pillars that the Secretary
of State should report on?
Chris Simpkins: Certainly, it
would be perverse if those were not included, but I also think
there are potentially other areas. I think that is catered for
in a clause of the Bill, in that the Secretary of State can include
or exclude other matters. Those three fields are included, but
"such other fields as the Secretary of State
We are talking principally about health care, education
and housing, but there may be other issues. For example, around
the ERG table sit representativesArmed Forces advocatesof
other Departments of State, such as the Treasury, the Home Office,
and immigration. There is a wide panoply, because all those things
can and do affect the Armed Forces community. I foresee that at
any given point in time a wide range of other issues could and
should properly be included.
As currently stated, the Secretary of State
can dismiss the views of people such as ourselves, COBSEO, and
others in the Service charity sector. If those independents do
not have a right to some sort of input that is published, it seems
to us an opportunity lost, to use a phrase that has been used
elsewhere. Service life can affect every facet of one's life,
not just the principal ones of health, education and housing,
which we all recognise and hold dear. Housing and health issues
can have effects on other elements and departmental responsibilities.
Forgive me for a rather cumbersome answer. Yes,
those three should be included, but there must be provision to
ensure that other relevant matters are included. Either the Secretary
of State should do that of his own volition or there should be
an opportunity for others to ensure that those things are embraced.
Q315 Christopher Pincher: That
said, do you think that other specific pillars should be included
or do you think the catch-all clause allows for those more dynamic
items that you mentioned?
Chris Simpkins: It clearly allows
for them to be captured, but equally, the Bill statesunderstandably
perhapsthat the Secretary of State "may determine."
All I am saying is that we must think about the years ahead, and
not necessarily just now. We must anticipate that whatever reaches
the statute book will certainly be there for the next four or
five years, and possibly a great deal longer in some form or other.
We have to anticipate future circumstances to some extent. Equally,
there must be some way for the Secretary of State to choosefor
whatever reasonto exclude a particular issue. Ifshall
we say, for the sake of debate?there are issues that the
independent representatives on the External Reference Group think
important, those independent members must have an opportunity
to raise them to give them some public and Parliamentary exposure.
Q316 Christopher Pincher: Gavin
Barlow of the Ministry of Defence was before us at a previous
session. The point was made to him that the input of all groups
that are included as stakeholders should be referenced in the
Report. From what he said, I inferred that that would be so. I
hope that gives you some reassurance.
Chris Simpkins: Indeed. I would
just add a technical point, if I may. The role of the External
Reference Group, as currently published, is to review the implementation
of the Service Personnel Command Paper. Its terms of reference
do not embrace a review of the Armed Forces Covenant or anything
that might come into it. Theoretically, you could reach a point
when all those commitments have been satisfied and, thank heavens,
another ad hoc group can be forgotten about and dismantled.
If there is to be a role for the External Reference
Group, particularly its independent members, in the review of
whatever Covenant provisions eventually see the light of day,
their terms of reference must be extended, otherwise it has no
Q317 Christopher Pincher: Again,
the feedback we had was that although the ERG will provide the
core input as a set of stakeholders, there is no cap on the number
of stakeholders who can be asked to give input, or who can volunteer
to provide input, and have it accepted.
You seem to accept, therefore, that having a
prescriptive set of pillarsareas that need to be focused
onin the Report would make it too exclusive and that it
is better to have three or four areas that are clearly set out,
as required by law, and a catch-all clause to incorporate anything
else that is necessary at a point in time.
Chris Simpkins: I would indeed.
Q318 Gemma Doyle: Do you think
it is strange that the issues in the Bill that the Secretary of
State will be required to report on do not in fact reflect the
responsibilities of the Secretary of State as best they could?
I am thinking, for example, about issues such as pensions, benefits
and the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. As Mr Stables has identified,
the issues that are set outhealth care, education and housingare
quite often delivered by local authorities or other bodies. Would
you like to see the issues set out in the Bill changed to more
accurately reflect the Secretary of State's responsibilities?
Tony Stables: It seems quite right
and proper that the Secretary of State should be reporting on
his responsibilities. I agree entirely. What we must do is find
a mechanism to report on all the other aspects. It seems to me
that the approach in respect of the External Reference Group has
been a tidying-up exercise. It would be a very good idea to move
the subject matter into the Covenant and move the External Reference
Group into a report by the Secretary of State. Frankly, that is
as simple as it is, but I do not think that it is easy to do it.
It is quite right and proper that the Secretary of State must
report on everything that he is responsible for delivering in
respect of the Armed Forces, and former Members of the Armed Forces,
as you quite correctly point out, in terms of pensions and compensation.
I cannot speak about issues that are outwith
the Secretary of State. It is a matter for other Ministers to
say whether they are content for the Secretary of State to write
on their behalf and report to Parliament. It is not a matter for
me. Actually, I can say from the Services charitable sector that
we would have some concern about the Secretary of State reporting
to Parliament on our work. In fact, I think it would be inconceivable,
Q319 Gemma Doyle: Mr Simpkins,
would you like to see pensions and benefits included in the Bill?
Chris Simpkins: There are two
approaches to this, and I think that they have both been identified.
Either the Bill should be more specific and include other specific
areas of activity, or there must be a provision by which some
other bodynot just the Secretary of Statecan raise
those issues, if it feels that it is appropriate.
Q320 Gemma Doyle: Perhaps it would
be appropriate to state in the Bill that the ERG should have an
input in the issues on which the Secretary of State would report
Chris Simpkins: We have spoken
a lot about the ERG. It is not a creature of statute at the moment.
Clearly it is for Parliament to consider whether that is what
it wants. All I am saying is that the ERG seems to me to be a
mechanism that, as Mr Stables has said, has proved its worth in
a number of areas, not only in implementing or ensuring the implementation
of what is in the Command Paper, but also in providing opportunities
for bilateral discussions across various parties within that process.
It has been extremely helpful.
That body's role and its terms of reference
can be extended very simply, as Tony has described. If that happens,
it seems to me that there would either need to be some reference
to the body in the Bill or that there should be some provision
whereby the Secretary of State "shall" appoint, not
"may" appoint", a body to perform that function.
That seems to me entirely appropriate and a way of achieving the
Q321 Gemma Doyle: I have a final
question. I have a specific concern that Scottish veterans are
simply not being recognised at all at the moment in clause 2 of
the Bill, because the three issues that are identified are all
devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Do you share concerns that
at the moment Scottish veterans could not really look to the Bill
as it stands for any sort of update on their welfare?
Tony Stables: It will depend on
the reporting mechanism. The Chairman of Veterans Scotland sits
on the executive committee of COBSEO, so we are fully inclusive
and engage with all aspects of veteran affairs in Scotland.
The fundamental difficulty goes back to the
Covenant. Who owns it? If the Covenant engages all aspects of
the four dimensions of the Armed Forces community that I spoke
about, and if the Government are agreed that the Ministry of Defence
owns it, there is probably a strong case for the Secretary of
State to report annually to Parliament. However, I do not think
we have yet got to the position of determining who actually owns
the Covenant, because we have not yet got to the position of determining
what it is.
Q322 Chair: On that point, Mr
Stables, I was not entirely clear about precisely what you meant
in an answer you gave earlier. I think you said that enshrining
in law a Military Covenant that has not been defined would be
wholly irresponsible. Does that mean you are wholly in favour
of clause 2 or wholly against?
Tony Stables: Forgive me.
Chair: I think you said that to enshrine
in law a Military Covenant, when we were not yet clear as to what
it meant or contained, would be wholly irresponsible.
Tony Stables: I am not sure that
I used "irresponsible", but it probably would be, yes.
Q323 Chair: Okay. Are you broadly
in favour of clause 2 or broadly against clause 2?
Tony Stables: I am broadly in
favour of a report, most certainly.
Q324 Chair: Okay. That clears
up for me, at any rate, the direction in which your previous answer
Tony Stables: I think it is actually
right and proper. Once we have determined the constituent parts
of this, and who does what to who, then I think it is right and
proper for it to be brought before Parliament. And the state of
the Armed Forces and the Armed Forces community should be laid
before Parliament annually. That is absolutely right and proper.
Chair: So long as I am clearthat
is what I was trying to get to.
Q325 Mark Lancaster: From a practical
point of view, this afternoon the Committee will be running through
the Bill line by line, and we will have to make some decisions.
Many of the questions you have been asked boil down to an amendment
tabled for discussion this afternoon. To be precise, and so you
know why some of these questions are being asked, the Committee
will consider an amendment adding to the list of "education",
"accommodation" and "healthcare",
pensions and benefits
support for reservists and their employers
running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme
on Armed Forces rehabilitation services
fields as the External Reference Group may determine."
What we, as a Committee, have to do this afternoon
is to decide which we choose, given a binary choice between keeping
the Bill as written or accepting the amendment, which would make
some prescriptive lists of things that will be reported on. That
is the context in which our questions are being asked. Given that
decision, if you were on the Committee this afternoon, which choice
would you make?
Chair: As legislators for a day.
Mark Lancaster: That is the choice.
Tony Stables: As Boyle said, quite
clearly those for which the Secretary of State has a legislative
responsibility must be spelt out, it would seem to me.
Q326 Mark Lancaster: But those
for which he hasn't?
Tony Stables: Where he has a legislative
responsibility, in terms of the provision of pensions, war pensions,
compensation, etc., that must be spelt out, quite rightly. On
the question of the health care and housing of Members of the
Armed Forces, there is clearly responsibility. The difficulty
I have is with mention of "former membership". How can
you hold the Secretary of State for Defence responsible for the
housing of a person who has spent one day in the Armed Forces
and is classified as a veteran? It does not compute.
Chris Simpkins: One of the problems
with the amendment, as you have described it, comes right at the
end, and that comes back to an observation I made earlier. There
is a reference to the "External Reference Group", which
has no status in law. The amendment would have to be combined
with some other provision recording what the External Reference
Group is, and what its role should be.
Q327 Chair: Again, Mr Stables,
I am sorry to do this. You have said that those areas for which
the Secretary of State is responsible must be spelt out, but I
think in a previous answer you said that it would be a great mistake
to be over-prescriptive. I am a little confused now as to where
we are going.
Tony Stables: Forgive me; my reference
before was to the Covenant in terms of over-prescription.
Chair: Right. I am with you.
Tony Stables: I am talking about
a generic document in terms of the Covenant. It would be very
difficult to be over-prescriptive in terms of the Covenantimpossible.
No, not in terms of the Bill. I made the distinction I think.
Perhaps I am too simplistic; I have always been a rather simple
Chair: I think that is most unlikely.
Tony Stables: It is truea
simple helicopter pilot.
Forgive me if I am repeating myself, but I think
that if the Secretary of State clearly is charged to report, the
mechanism for him to report on issues for which he has no direct
responsibility or influence is not clear to me. I do not think
it has ever been made clear to me or to any of us. We have slightly
fudged the issue by saying, "Well, we've got this External
Reference Group, which is sort of independent", but it is
not independent actuallynot independent of Government.
There are independent members who sit on it, but it is not independent
of Government, and the Report was not independent of Government
either. We kind of fudge the issue slightly with that.
Chair: Okay. Thank you.
Q328 Mr Ellwood: Mr Stables, you
eloquently summed up the dilemmathe challengeGovernment
face in trying to define the Military Covenant. Is it over-prescriptive
to go though every detail of the responsibility, duty and requirement
of Government to look after veterans when we have put them in
harm's way or should it be a more loose agreement saying that
there is a moral responsibility, without having a tick-box process
out of which things could be left? That is the challenge we face.
What has been made clear is that there are three aspects that
will be definedhealth care, housing and education. Notwithstanding
Mark Lancaster's comment that the amendment will be put through,
can I ask you to comment on this? Because they are already in
the Bill, are those three areas understood by the Service community
Tony Stables: It depends on where
you sit in the Service community. Clearly, those in the Armed
Forces living in substandard accommodation might regard housing
as an important aspect of their lives. Those who can't access
GP care as a family might regard that as important. We are talking
about differing aspects and parts of people's lives. It is clear
that at the point of transition, as you move out of the Armed
Forces into civilian life, people are faced with issues, not least
finding a job. There is employment, housing, education, health
care, well-being and a whole raft of issues. If you are going
to report on three thingsexcluding what we talked about
before on statutory responsibilitiesthose are reasonable
things on which to report. I entirely agree.
Q329 Mr Ellwood: Could I ask Mr
Parry something? You have been allocated £86 million. As
a crude yardstick, where is that money going?
Bryn Parry: To facilities such
as the rehabilitation complex at Headley Court, to supporting
other charitiesCombat Stress gets £6.5 millionand
to working closely with my friends in the Legion to support what
I call the defence recovery capability. The three Services have
a recovery capability for their wounded and that is where we start
to become interested in transition. In Help for Heroes's case,
we are helping to build or are funding recovery centres in Edinburgh,
Colchester, Catterick and Tidworth in Hampshire, and with the
Navy in Plymouth. We are in discussions with the Royal Air Force
about how we might support it as well. The Royal British Legion
is coming in as partners to provide the running costs for those
centres and an additional centre for Battle Back physical recovery.
We are seeing the people who are preparing to move on into their
lives having a portfolio of problems, including housing, welfare
and compensation. I am not qualified to discuss them, but they
clearly exist. I ask that, whatever is enshrined in law, works
in practice. It is all very well to say that a man must be insured
to have competent support for his prosthetic limb for life, but
if he then goes to his local health authority with a limb that
it does not have the budget for or the expertise to equip, it
is not working in practice. For me, a simple chap, an infantrymaneven
more simple than a person who flies a helicopterI ask that,
whatever you do, ladies and gentlemen, it works in practice.
Q330 Mr Ellwood: Where is that
money going, Mr Simpkins? Does it fit into the categories that
have been clearly defined as priorities as part of the job?
Chris Simpkins: Again, if I may
give some scale to our activity, we are spending £1.2 million
a week directly in support of the welfare needs of the Armed Forces
community. Veterans are included, of course, as well as serving
personnel. Last year, our direct case load was in excess of 100,000
people. I can easily produce for you, Chairman, the distribution
figures of the issues that those cases involve.
Q331 Chair: If that would be simple
for you to produce, it would be most helpful.
Chris Simpkins: Certainly, Chairman.
I can provide that detail. They certainly include without doubt
health and housing issues and a wide range of other issues affecting
delivery by the local authority services as we referred to earlier,
and a multitude of other activities. Less applies to education
issues, although people approach us periodically and ask us to
help make representations on education issues. I am sure that
that is an issue that the Families Federations will be more competent
Tony Stables: We could provide
you with overall charitable figures.
Chair: That would be helpful, too.
Tony Stables: The Confederation,
COBSEO, has secured preferred bidder status from the Big Lottery
Fund for the Forces in Mind programme which, hopefully, we will
be authorised to deliver towards the end of this year. It is
£35 million from the Big Lottery Fund to look at the problem
of transition from the Armed Forces into civilian life. The difficulty
with transition at the moment is that a number of organisations
and bodies are involved but there is no coherence or leadership
in the transition that might start at day two and, in some cases,
is actually not achieved by death. The three things that have
been said make the charitable sector a reasonably big player in
the delivery of some aspects that the Secretary of State for Defence
is reporting on.
Q332 Chair: That is one of the
main reasons why you are being kind enough to give evidence to
us this morning. Mr Parry, Help for Heroes focuses almost entirely
on health issues. Why?
Bryn Parry: Because it was a simple
desire for a bunch of people who were moved when we saw reports
on television of the casualties being taken in Afghanistan and
Iraq. We have wide objects but, frankly at the moment, with more
than 450 Service charities and £1.9 billion in those Service
charities, we are lucky enough to have organisations such as SSAFA,
the Legion and Combat Stress, which do it very well. They are
engaged in areas that we want supported. We are able to support
those charities. I gave the example of Combat Stress, but equally
we have been able to help fund SSAFA and St Dunstan's. It was
a simple emotional desire to do our bit to support, nothing more
Chair: Thank you.
Q333 Alex Cunningham: Mr Parry,
you said that, whatever goes into the Bill, you want to see it
working in practice. Do you have an idea of what you mean by
that? Should there be something in law that we provide to our
Service people, which would achieve that?
Bryn Parry: Again, this is not
my world. I continually see words that look good and sound right,
but when I talk to the guysthe blokes on the ground or
the blokes who have lost their legsit is not always working
Q334 Alex Cunningham: So some
sort of veterans card like they have in the United States might
actually assist. That might just help the person you were talking
about earlier who goes along to the PCT and can't get support.
Bryn Parry: I think we need better
co-ordination. Coming back to where I started earlier this morning,
there is a responsibility within the Ministry of Defence, I believe,
to our Armed Forces; then there is responsibility, clearly, in
the Government as a whole and the various different Government
Departments, including education, welfare, housing and so on.
Then there is the responsibility of the third sector, which wishes
to help. But how do we link those two together? Does that responsibility
remain within the MoD, or is it something that sits outside that
is, therefore, better able to co-ordinate? If I was in your place,
I would go for an organisation or person or whatever that was
able to better co-ordinate all three sectors and ensure that we
get smooth passage. At the moment, I don't see that, and that
is my frustration.
Q335 Christopher Pincher: To follow
Mr Cunningham's point, I do not want to give the impression that
I have spent a very long time re-reading Gavin Barlow's transcript
from the previous sitting, but he said that the objective within
the three pillars mentioned in the Bill would be to develop some
quantitative and qualitative targetskey performance indicators,
if you likethat would be reported on in the Secretary of
State's Report. Clearly, that would then focus Parliament's scrutiny,
as well as that of outside organisations. Do you think that setting
those sorts of quantitative and qualitative targets is the right
Bryn Parry: Forgive me againthis
is personal, rather than my organisationbut people who
serve in the Armed Forces who volunteer to put their lives at
risk are special. They don't need to be looked upon as yet another
member of the public sector. They need something special. Therefore,
we need leadership from the very top of Government and within
the rest of the country to ensure that those people who serve
and are affected by the conditions of Servicewhether they
are injured or whether their housing is an issue later in lifeget
the very best. I think that putting it in law and making sure
that the right clause and reporting system are there are all very
well, but I doubt that that will make it work. We need to see
that leadership, that determination and that drive throughout
the whole country and throughout every sector to make it work
in a very special waya unique wayfor our men and
Q336 Christopher Pincher: So the
challenge is to set a target that will apply to a serving soldier,
a newly ex-soldier, a veteran and bereaved Members of the Armed
Forces community. That is the challenge of setting those sorts
Bryn Parry: In my humble experience,
I have never seen something written down or the principles of
something discussed or made into law work as well as somebody
who gets up and says, "Right, this is what I want to happen.
Let's make it go."
Chris Simpkins: Chairman, if I
may just make an observation on the reported remark from Gavin
Barlow. I have a rhetorical question and would be very interested
to learnI think Tony referred to this earlierhow
it is that outside organisations would be scrutinised by the Secretary
Q337 Jack Lopresti: Have any of
your organisations done any specific research into the kind of
Military Covenant that the serving Service personnel would actually
Chris Simpkins: Not in relation
to specifically the Military Covenant, but we have done extensive
research in the Royal British Legionand have engaged a
great many other organisations in itinto the, to put it
simply, welfare needs of the whole panoply of the Armed Forces
community. Of course, the Ministry of Defence carries out its
own Continuous Attitude Survey of Serving personnel, and these
are questions that could be included in that Attitude Survey.
Bryn Parry: My experience is practical.
The Serviceman just serves because he wants to join the Army,
the Navy or the Air Force, but he is resentful when he feels that
somebody is being mean, whether that relates to playing around
with his compensation, making it difficult to get a medical discharge
with honour, or flying him into Lyneham and driving him in an
ambulance up to Selly Oak or the Queen Elizabeth as it is now,
rather than flying him to Birmingham, in order to save money.
He finds that very difficult to cope with. He expects to be treated
with respect. Whatever we do today, that is what we must try to
Tony Stables: Can you just remind
me of your question? I was listening to what Bryn was saying.
Q338 Jack Lopresti: Have you done
any specific research with serving men and women about what sort
of Military Covenant they would like to see?
Tony Stables: I am not aware of
Q339 Jack Lopresti: Do you detect
a desire for a legally enforceable Covenant or is that not what
is coming through?
Tony Stables: Can I go back almost
to where I started and the word "Covenant"? It is ill
understood, frankly. It is understood as a relationship between
the statethe Governmentand Members of the Armed
Forces; less so, I suspect, by former Members of the Armed Forces
who I don't think have latched on to this idea yet. But the meaning
of that Covenant is not understood. Is it a binding agreement?
Does it mean that something is enshrined in law that I have a
right to? I don't think there is an understanding of it. It is
a relatively new term.
Bryn Parry: Could I ask whether
putting it into law would put the onus on to the individual to
fight for what is legally right?
Q340 Jack Lopresti: I was just
about to say: should the Bill go further and provide for minimum
standards in the key areas that are agreed?
Bryn Parry: I return to my point.
A Service man joins and expects to be treated properly. When that
fails, something needs to be in place to ensure that that is corrected.
Whether it is put in law or not, we have to go back to the question,
will it work? If our Service man feels that he has to go to litigation
to get what is his due, that would be wrong.
Tony Stables: The principle of
the Service Command Paper was that you should not be disadvantaged
by Service. There is an argument to suggest that the Service man
and the veteran should be more than a citizen and therefore you
take a rather more positive approach. It is interesting when you
look at the principle enshrined in the Command Paper that said
you should not be disadvantaged and then look at some of the measures
taken by the Department of Health now, which positively discriminate
in favour of the veteran in terms of priority health care and
various other things. So we already have a sort of mismatch. It
adds to the confusion about what we mean. As I said before, we
need to go back to basics in determining what we mean. The answer
to your question is that I do not think it is widely discussed.
It is more widely used by the media and others, but not discussed
Chris Simpkins: Chairman, on behalf
of the Royal British Legion, perhaps I should accept some responsibility
for that. In September 2009, the Royal British Legion launched
its "Honour the Covenant" campaign, drawing attention
to a wide range of issues affecting the welfare needs of the Armed
Forces community. I venture to suggest that were it not for that
campaign, that Command Paper would not have been published and
we might not even be having this discussion today. That campaign
enjoyed wide support, both within and without the Armed Forces
community, because it also captured the imagination of the million-plus
supporters that the Royal British Legion has and of the media
and the country at large at a time when, as now, the Nation clearly
wanted to demonstrate its support for the Armed Forces community,
veterans and serving people alike.
You only have to see the numbers of people who
participate at Wootton Bassett, for example, and around Remembrance
time in all sorts of things in support of the Armed Forces community,
return parades etcetera, to see evidence of that support. The
Covenant therefore became, and is, a concept. I return to what
I said earlier. I do not suggest that the concept should be refined
in pages and pages of documentation but we can, without too much
difficulty, describe what that concept means as a set of principles.
I certainly have anecdotal evidence to suggest that when the Prime
Minister made his statement in June last year, the Armed Forces
were very grateful for that recognition. Equally, in the last
few days I have had the odd remark, "Well, actually this
is pretty depressing, that this seems to be some sort of change
of mind." Bob Russell: Mr Simpkins, could I just
take you back
Chair: Bob, hold on. There is a queue
Q341 Mr Jones: Part of the Green
Paper produced in 2008 was to try and define some of those things,
that would form the basis of the contract you describe. I accept
that in the Command Paper we have gone further, which I fully
supportthat ex-Service men and women should get better
treatment and better privileges than we do. You raise the example
of the health service. The Green Paper clearly set out for discussion
areas that could be codifiedand were going to be codified
if the Election result had been differentinto a contract,
if you want to call it that, or Covenant between the Armed Forces
and broader society.
Chris Simpkins: I am certainly
not disputing that at all.
Q342 Bob Russell: Will you confirm
that the "Honour the Covenant" campaign secured massive
political support across all the political parties at that time?
Chris Simpkins: Indeed it did,
Q343 Chair: So your fellow witnesses
can blame you for their being here.
Chris Simpkins: I get blamed for
many things. My skin is thick.
Q344 Jack Lopresti: Looking forward,
what do you consider to be the most important considerations when
you are putting together a document outlining the new Tri-Service
Covenant, and what form would you like it to take?
Chris Simpkins: I can really only
repeat the reference to it being a set of principles. As society
evolves, while principles may not change, I suspect that the detail
that sits underneath them will change. None of us would have
imagined 10 years agoI am making a silly comparison, perhapsthe
pace of change and the impact of technology on everyday life.
I can remember the days when I used to carry a mobile phone that
was a brick with a ruddy great battery hanging off my shoulder,
and now I can ring anywhere in the world, at any time, with something
the size of a credit card. So I do not think we can anticipate
with such definition how society will evolve, and that is whyforgive
me for repeating myselfthere is a set of principles beneath
which we all work individually and collectively to improve the
lot of the Armed Forces family.
Q345 Jack Lopresti: So it should
not be too rigid, in your opinionwhich seems to be the
Bryn Parry: I support that.
Q346 Chair: Mr Simpkins, the implication
of what Mr Parry said was that the Covenant would be of more use
to Service people if it were not legally enforceable but had a
certain sort of automaticity about it and did not require them
to go to court to enforce it. Would you agree with that?
Chris Simpkins: I would as a principle.
Quite how that is achieved I am not so sure. If something is
enshrined in law there is always the spectre of some sort of legal
challenge. I do not know, though I suspectand that is
why we are having this debatethere isn't the detail on
the face of the Bill as we see it, following up from the commitments
made last year. But I don't think that is a reason for not doing
Q347 Mr Jones: Wasn't one way
of tackling it to keep the lawyers out, which I think must be
a benefit? In the Green Paper we set out some alternatives; for
example, either having an independent Armed Forces ombudsman,
or even using the Parliamentary Ombudsman, as a way of allowing
people some redress if they thought things weren't being delivered
in terms of what was laid down in the charter or Covenant.
Chris Simpkins: Yes, even with
access to ombudsmen it does not of course entirely rule out access
to the courts through judicial review, although judicial review
of itself doesn't achieve anything very much. Most of the people
we are talking about would not have the resources to pursue that
approach, in any case.
Q348 Gemma Doyle: You may be aware
that the Minister gave an assurance in a debate on the Bill in
Parliament on 10 January that the ERG would continue to produce
a report which would be put into the public domain. We had evidence
from the Bill Team last week, and we were told that in fact the
Report from the Secretary of State would replace the Report of
the External Reference Group. We then had some frankly quite confusing
testimonyyou can read the transcript. The one thing that
was clear was that only one report is envisaged. Unfortunately,
we have not been able to clear up this matter because the Minister
has declined to give evidence to the Committee. Are you any clearer
than we are about how the External Reference Group will fit into
Tony Stables: When we discussed
this at the last meeting of the External Reference Groupthe
proposed single, Secretary of State-signed-off Report laid before
Parliamentwe all registered concerns as to how to include
the independence of the third sector in such a report. I have
to say that that lies with the Cabinet Office now, who chair that
meeting. As I said, we have not seen the minutes of this last
ERG, nor have we had any answers yet to the questions we left
with them. So we know nothing.
Chris Simpkins: I can only echo
that point. I don't know whether there is now the intention for
one or two reports, based on what I have heard from you this morning.
We recognised at the last meeting, as Tony says, that there was
some difficulty around an ERG Report, and the independence of
the ERG Report, given the dilemma of many officials, who outnumber
the independent representatives of the ERG, sitting around the
table. Of course, this is a Group on which votes are never takenthat
is not the way it works. In my viewforgive me if I repeat
myselfthere has to be a mechanism by which at least the
independent members of the ERG are included in the process, or
some form of independent scrutiny is applied. Quite how the Secretary
of Statebecause it is his Report on the Billdeals
with that, technically, as the Bill is currently drafted, I don't
Tony Stables: There is an ever-increasing
degree of co-operation between the public, private and charitable
sectors in the delivery of services in the Armed Forces community.
If that is, indeed, what we are reporting onwhich seems
to me, in a nutshell, what it isthen the question is, is
it right and proper for the Secretary of State for Defence to
be laying that Report before Parliament? Is he able to lay that
Report before Parliament? These were the concerns we raised in
the ERG. It is not necessarily the independence of the third sector;
the third sector stands alone in delivering some aspects, but
it is joined up with public and private partners in delivering
a lot of other aspects. I refer to the Forces in Mind project:
if you look at the way we will deliver that in 2012 and beyond,
a 20-year programme, it will be a combination of all these aspects,
but it is inconceivable that we could ask the Secretary of State
for Defence to sign off a report on our activities.
Q349 Gemma Doyle: If there is
only to be one report, which is the evidence we have had, do you
think it is worth consideration that the Secretary of State should
place the Report of the ERG before Parliament, for that to be
debated, rather than his own report?
Chris Simpkins: My immediate reaction
is that I can see no reason why not, because the ERG Report is
submitted to the Prime Minister at the moment, if my memory serves
me correctly. I can't see any reason why the Prime Minister, or
whoever it is determined that we might report to in future, should
not lay that Report before Parliament as well. I am not a constitutional
lawyer, but there may be a difficulty, it was the point I made
reference to earlier, in Parliament undertaking scrutiny of organisations
which are not part of government, namelyI would say, wouldn't
In theory, of course, the work of the External Reference Group
should be lifed, as has been referred to earlier. Once the recommendation
Command Papers are seen, you could argue that that is the end
of the External Reference Group, which, after all, was put in
place in its current format merely to drive those recommendations
through. Those who sit on the External Reference Group have seen
the value of that and, as I have mentioned before, of expanding
that to the point of delivery. They can see that this is a very
good mechanismin fact, the only mechanism that exists at
the momentto embrace the public, charitable and private
sectors and deliver these things. Well, not the private sector
at the moment, although it could do.
Many of the services that we are providing,
both in the Armed Forces community and the veteran community,
are a combination of those three parts working together. That
is the only part at the moment. I am not sure. Say you said to
me, "We can enshrine all of that in a report that we can
lay before Parliament, signed off by the Secretary of State,"although
if it is signed off by the Secretary of State for Defence, it
implies he has a responsibility for it; I cannot compute thatif
you are saying that that can all be done within the Bill, well
Q350 Gemma Doyle: You expressed
some concerns about the independence of the External Reference
Group. What can be done to improve that independence?
Tony Stables: I go back to what
I said before. It is a lifed group. Its only responsibility, enshrined
in the terms of reference, is to deliver the recommendations of
the Service Command Paper. We have regular meetings, but as we
have mentioned and alluded to here, before this Group was set
up, wethe charity sectordid not talk or engage with
the Department of Health, and we certainly did not engage with
the Department for Transport. We did not know who was in the Department
for Transport. We had some engagement with the Devolved Administrations,
but not very much. We now meet on a regular basis and there are
outcomes. It is not just a question of sitting around a table
and talking. It is a most successful mechanism, so why would we
want to stop now? Even if we had met all of the recommendations
of the Service Command Paper, I would suggest that there was a
strong argument to continue such a cross-body and to develop it,
to take the point of delivery and maybe the private sector. It
is a very good mechanism, but how that fits into the Armed Forces
Bill, I do not know.
Chris Simpkins: But I think the
point that you are addressing is the independent element of that.
We have referred to the fact that technically the External Reference
Group is not wholly independent. There is an independent element
of it. Whether that independent element achieves some different
status as a result of the current debate, I do not know. That
is one way, but I am sure there are others. I have not thought
Q351 Mark Lancaster: From what
I am picking up from what you are saying, you are making it very
clear that the External Reference Group was for a certain life,
to do with the Service Command Paper. Should we be looking at
this from another direction? Rather than amending the Bill to
meet the requirements of the External Reference Group, we could
look at the External Reference Group and perhaps change its terms
of reference to make it fit in better with the Bill. Would that
not be the more straightforward way of doing this? Perhaps the
External Reference Group could be made to report to the Secretary
of State, rather than the Prime Minister. That is not a downgrading
step, but it would be more appropriate for this Bill. Can we not
look at it from the other side?
Chris Simpkins: I think I made
reference to that earlier. In fact, I know I did. As for reporting
to the Secretary of State, I think that may create some difficulties,
because the locus of the External Reference Group extends far
beyond the role of the Secretary of State for Defence; it is cross-government.
That is why it is now a creature of the Cabinet Office and reports
to the Prime Minister.
Q352 Mark Lancaster: To build
on Gemma's point though, given that it looks as if the External
Reference Group could well evolve, how would you like to see those
terms of reference change to fit in with the broad thrust of the
Tony Stables: The difficulty that
we have here is that one rather assumes that the work of the External
Reference Group is entirely the Military Covenant. A simple transfer
will be made. ERG is yesterday, and we are now moving to the Covenant,
and the Secretary of State will report on the Covenant. If you
look at the recommendations of the Service Command Paper, many
elements could be construed to be part of the Covenantyou
are quite right. In the External Reference Group, we are seeing
that this is a mechanism for taking forward things that may be
associated with it, but outside it.
My personal view is that the success of the
External Reference Group is worth preserving; it is not worth
throwing out with the bathwater. It may have changing requirements.
It may have changing terms of reference as it moves forward, which
may be outwith whatever is defined within a Covenant, so I would
leave it there. I wouldn't confuse the work of taking forward
the recommendations of the Command Paper with a Covenant, which
is what people are seeking to do.
Why don't we subsume it within it? There may
come a point in time where that is right and appropriate. At the
moment, we seem to have had a lot of debateI've seen it
in debates in both Housesabout the work of the ERG and
its relationship with the Covenant. I frankly cannot see why they
can't work in parallel. Why can't the ERG work in parallel with
the work of the Covenant? If the work of the ERG is Covenant-dominated,
it should move to the Covenant. If it is outside that, it should
be outside of it. I can't see the need, other than for a tidying-up
exercise, to combine all this.
Q353 Mr Francois: Following up
on that point, you've given us a steer in that you said that one
of the reasons why the External Reference Group adds value is
because it is not wholly independent of the Government. It has
created a mechanism whereby you can overcome, to follow Mr Parry's
point, bureaucratic stove-piping. You finally get different Government
Departments to communicate with each other in the same room, with
some independent help, in order actually to cut through red tape
and provide practical help to the people who need it. In that
sense, it has perhaps helped to knock heads together a bit, and
it has been a valuable thing. You have given us a pretty strong
hint in your three ways there. Following on from that in terms
of practical help and making a difference, how do you think the
ERG, as a mechanism, could evolve further to assist the Covenant?
If you were three joint kings for a day, what would you have it
Tony Stables: It would depend
very much on who had ownership of the Covenant. The ERG was put
under the chair of the Cabinet Office, because it was seen as
a kind of neutral referee in all this. It was cross-government,
and therefore it would be chaired at the Cabinet Office. You could
argue, actually, that if the components of the Covenant are outwith
the Ministry of Defence, you might see how much is outwith the
MoD and actually place the Report before Parliament by somebody
else. There are arguments to say that the Secretary of State for
Defence could be a minor shareholder in all this. I think that
that is unlikely, but it is a possibility.
Q354 Mr Francois: Just assuming
for a moment that someone has to leadI was an infantryman,
too, Sir, but back in the last centuryand assuming, for
the sake of debate, that you put the MoD in the lead, and it is
the Secretary of State who is reporting in order to try and co-ordinate,
how then would you see the ERG evolving in order to tie in?
Tony Stables: I would see it in
support of that. I think it is quite conceivable that the chairmanship
of the ERG, in where we have got today, could equally have well
been provided by the MoD or it could be the Cabinet Office. To
a large extent, it has been dominated by personality in the way
that we have taken it forward. We could have had a less than enthusiastic
chairman from the Cabinet Office and got nowhere; we could have
had a very enthusiastic chairman from the MoD. I am not actually
sure. If the commitment is to cross-government development, involving
the private, the charitable and the public sectors, then I am
not quite sure that it matters where. The answer is that if we
move forward, it has to be in support of the Covenant and, at
some time, it has to merge into it.
Q355 Alex Cunningham: In support
of rather than independent of? If it is in support of or becomes
part of, where do we get the independence element built into this?
Tony Stables: I think we are confusing
it by saying that the ERG is independent. As we said before, I
don't think that it is independent in terms of the constitution.
Q356 Alex Cunningham: Should it
Tony Stables: What we are saying
is that, in laying before Government, some of the aspects and
topics that are enshrined in the Bill fall within the purview
of independent organisations, and how do we ensure the independence
of that reporting when it is placed before Parliament? That is
the nub of what we're talking about.
Q357 Alex Cunningham: So it needs
to be separate but not part of.
Tony Stables: I think the ERG
merely confuses it slightly. That was a specific group for a specific
role. It has developed. It may have a new role in the future,
but it is associated with the Covenant and, therefore, in support
Q358 Bob Russell: Gentlemen, when
it comes to national charities and voluntary organisations briefing
Parliamentarians at national level, Royal British Legion is exemplary
and is the yardstick that I would suggest others follow. I'm just
going to ask you about grass-roots level, and whether the various
charities represented here feel sufficient is done to brief Members
of Parliament so that we can be better Parliamentarians in representing
the interests of the Service charities. Is sufficient being done
at grass-roots level?
Chris Simpkins: Clearly, I can
only answer that from the Legion's perspective. We have the advantage
of having a national networkexcluding Scotland, where there
are, if you like, sister charities, but I know they operate a
similar process, particularly Poppyscotlandso we have head
office lead at the centre, but we also encourage our county organisations
to engage with their Parliamentarians. That is something we have
invested quite a bit of time and effort in, certainly in the last
two to three years. I would be the first to accept that there
is always more that can be done, but we have been pretty active
and you can expect us to continue to be so.
Chair: To very good effect, if I may
Q359 Bob Russell: Chairman, the
reason behind thatas I represent a garrison town I am somewhat
spoiltis that I was thinking the footprint of the military
presence across the country is diminishing. All I am suggesting
to the three gentlemen and the various charities is that we could
address that at grass-roots level to involve Members of Parliament
in those places where the military footprint does not exist. That
was the reason behind it.
Bryn Parry: I know you and I have
talked about your desire to produce a port at Colchester, and
we are opening the Colchester Recovery Centre together tomorrow.
I know you are having a pop at me slightly in that I haven't been
to brief you. The reason I haven't been to brief you is that we
don't have members of our organisation out at the grass roots
like the Legion does. The person you need to be briefed by is
me, and I'm in a tin hat in an industrial estate in Downton. I'm
really happy to see you over a sandwich at any stage you like,
but if I get in a car and drive all the way to Colchester every
time, I've wasted a day's worth of fund-raising.
Q360 Bob Russell: The point I
was making was the point I've made, and I hope it will be taken
on board. I was somewhat struck earlier, Chris Simpkins, when
you said that the Legion is helping serving personnel. That came
as a shock. What areas of serving personnel is the Royal British
Chris Simpkins: Let's be clear.
A beneficiary of the Royal British Legion under our royal charter
is anybody who is currently serving, or who has served for a minimum
of seven days, or their dependants. This is a population of something
like 9 million people. Again, I can't give you specific figures,
but increasingly at the moment we are getting serving people approaching
us for help and advice in terms of the benefits and money advice
service that we operate, particularly in conjunction with the
Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which is contributing to it.
In many parts of the country we deliver that through the Citizens
Advice Bureaux. It is a collaborative approach. Increasingly,
we are supporting serving people, including, especially at the
moment, in representing them in their cases for compensation appeals
and pensions, where we achieve a remarkable degree of success.
Mr Stables sees our people appearing on their behalf on many occasions
when he is wearing another hat.
Q361 Bob Russell: Is there sufficient
engagement by organisations such as yours in working to improve
the welfare of Service personnel? Is there an open door, or are
you kept away?
Chris Simpkins: I don't see any
evidence that we're kept away. We need to put more effort into
it at the local level because the Military personnel are very
busy and they change on a frequent basis. Just as you have developed
those relationships you have to start again, because after six
or 12 months the Commanding Officers have moved on. It's not just
at Commanding Officer level; it's also much lower down.
Chair: We ought to be moving on, but
there are a couple of questions about the Service complaints procedures
that Alex Cunningham will put to you.
Q362 Alex Cunningham: How well
do you think the complaints system that was introduced in the
previous Armed Forces Act has been functioning? Has the introduction
of the Service Complaints Panels in particular improved the perception
of the fairness and independence of the system?
Tony Stables: Others may be able
to speak to this better than I. I can't speak to it other than
to refer you to the serving population. What I would say, though,
if I may, is that there is a very strong case to extend responsibilities
into the veterans sector, particularly where the public sector
is responsible for delivering service. I think there are many
cases at the momentI certainly see it at the tribunalwhere
a veteran comes before the tribunal on a case which, frankly,
we don't have any jurisdiction over and which would most certainly
benefit from some kind of complaints commissioner or ombudsman
to represent that extension of our Armed Forces community. I'm
certainly a fan of the principle, and I think it should be extended
into the veteran community.
Chris Simpkins: Specifically in
relation to the Service Complaints Commissioner, her role is actually
very limited. She oversees and reviews the processes, not individual
complaints. There is a marked difference in those activities,
and the resources which the Commissioner has at her disposal to
do that are pretty limited. If that role were extended to engage
in the examination of individual complaints, clearly there are
resource implications that would attach to that and whether the
power would be a power of compulsion or recommendation.
Q363 Alex Cunningham: Are you
actually saying it's not good enough?
Chris Simpkins: I don't know that
I'm in a position to pass an authoritative view on it. I'm really
not. I can only refer you to the Service Complaints Commissioner's
report, but of course that report is predicated within the terms
of reference that she has, and they are quite constrained.
Q364 Alex Cunningham: But you
would like to see it changed?
Chris Simpkins: There's always
room for improvement.
Q365 Alex Cunningham: A very diplomatic
answer. This Bill makes a number of changes to the membership
of the Service Complaints Panel and the powers of the Defence
Council. Do you have any concerns or views about these changes?
Chris Simpkins: I'm not in a position
Q366 Chair: We have kept you for
long enough, but just at the end, we would like to ask you: are
there any issues which you feel we ought to have covered or which
you'd like to get across to us before we allow you to go and move
on to the next panel? Mr Parry, you have been comparatively quiet
during the course of this session.
Bryn Parry: Unusually. I think
there's been great progress, but I come back to my point that
we need this to be a simple process for the average-bloke Member
of the Armed Forces who has a complaint, has been wounded or needs
a better house. They are in the chain of command, and find it
very difficult to take that any further. I was given a most amazing
bollocking and nearly lost my job when I was a young platoon commander
for writing to the Prime Minister about conditions of Service
and a few things that were going wrong at the time. I was very
nearly offered resignation, but luckily I kept my job, because
it was treated as evidence from the coal face by the Chief of
the Defence Staff at the time.
It is not for a soldier, sailor or airman to
complain, whether it's about his prosthetic leg or his house.
We have to make it easier or look after him better; I'm not sure
which one. I'm certainly not going to tell you how to do your
job and how to make that happen, but it does seem to me, from
an outsider's point of view, that as a civilian, when I look into
this thing, I'd like to see a process where the three Armed Services
can decide on a single policy, I'd like that to be co-ordinated
within the MoD and I'd like to see that come out into the wider
sector. Then I'd like somebody to decide how we're going to make
it happen in all its various aspects. I leave it to you to decide
how that happens, but I think there is a real need.
Chris Simpkins: There are two
things I'd refer to, Chairman, but not in detail. We made reference
earlier on to the first draft of the non-statutory Covenant. We
have made representations on that, as Tony has said. We believe
it is pretty weak at the moment and requires a lot more work.
I won't go into detail, as it's not appropriate for your time
The other areait is not the subject of
this Bill, but never lose an opportunityis that we are
extremely concerned by the loss of the office of chief coroner
and the impact that has on Service families, particularly bereaved
families, obviously. That is a serious concern of ours on which
we are campaigning at the moment.
I am personally greatly encouraged by the collaboration and co-operation
that exist now within the Service charitable sector. I am encouraged
by the co-operation and co-ordination that happen now with that
sector and the public sector across Government. It is time now
to move that to the point of delivery and to encourage those relationships.
As for the Covenant itself, I believe that we
have to go back to basics and bring in some intellectual brain
power to determine exactly what this Covenant is and what it is
supposed to be. We have just kicked the word around for so long
now without any understanding of what it is. Everybody deserves
to stand back from it and have some intellectual debate. The reporting
processwhatever that may be and whoever it is who may report
to Parliament, and it is important that it does happenwill
come out of whatever work is done in defining what the Covenant
really is. Please don't confuse it with ERG; these are separate
Chair: Thank you to all of you.