The Armed Forces Bill - Armed Forces Committee Contents

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 record?

  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 charities?

  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 for Heroes.

  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 status—indeed, if it has any status at the moment—of 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 intention—and, I assume, the Government's intention—was at that time. Clearly, things have moved on somewhat.

  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 Covenant—or at least, as I would put it, principles that such a Covenant should satisfy—is 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 them—particularly now during a period of intense operational activity with all its familiar results—it 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 status—better status—in 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 veteran—not 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 community—this is where we have some difficulty with the Covenant—in my view, it comes down to four components: Members of serving Armed Forces, their families—and defining a family is difficult in itself—the 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 Forces—it 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 had—again, 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 were—we still are—a 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 bureaucracy?

  Bryn Parry: I am afraid to say, yes.

  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 morning, yes.

  Q298 Mr Robathan: To follow that up with Mr Simpkins, the External Reference Group and charities—certainly two of you—have 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 suspect—indeed, I know—that 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 days—and an expectation of the people of the country—that 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 to Government.

  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 them.

  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 mine—this 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 principles—forgive me for repeating myself—that could and should be enshrined in law.

  Q304 Chair: I see. Right.

  Chris Simpkins: Principles—not three pages of text.

  Chair: That is perfectly clear. Thank you.

  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 that review.

  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 times formally.

  Q309 Mr Jones: So on none of those occasions were the contents of the Bill discussed with the Royal British Legion?

  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 relationships—both with the Service charitable sector and other Government Departments—which 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 a—I 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 Boyce—I can speak only from personal experience—achieved 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 fields.

  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 pillars—health 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 also

"such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine."

We are talking principally about health care, education and housing, but there may be other issues. For example, around the ERG table sit representatives—Armed Forces advocates—of 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 states—understandably perhaps—that 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 choose—for whatever reason—to exclude a particular issue. If—shall 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 locus.

  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 pillars—areas that need to be focused on—in 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 out—health care, education and housing—are 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, frankly.

  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 body—not just the Secretary of State—can 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 to Parliament.

  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 same outcome.

  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 was going.

  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 clear—that 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",

"mental healthcare…pensions and benefits…employment and training…support for reservists and their employers…the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme…progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation services…and…other such 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 Covenant—impossible. 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 person.

  Chair: I think that is most unlikely.

  Tony Stables: It is true—a 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 actually—not 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 dilemma—the challenge—Government 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 defined—health 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 as priorities?

  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 things—excluding what we talked about before on statutory responsibilities—those 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 charities—Combat Stress gets £6.5 million—and 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 infantryman—even more simple than a person who flies a helicopter—I 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 to discuss.

  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 than that.

  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 guys—the blokes on the ground or the blokes who have lost their legs—it is not always working for them.

  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 targets—key performance indicators, if you like—that 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 approach?

  Bryn Parry: Forgive me again—this is personal, rather than my organisation—but 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 Service—whether they are injured or whether their housing is an issue later in life—get 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 way—a unique way—for our men and women.

  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 of targets.

  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 learn—I think Tony referred to this earlier—how it is that outside organisations would be scrutinised by the Secretary of State.

  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 want?

  Chris Simpkins: Not in relation to specifically the Military Covenant, but we have done extensive research in the Royal British Legion—and have engaged a great many other organisations in it—into 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 achieve.

  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 any.

  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 state—the Government—and 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 by them.

  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 here.

  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 support—that 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 codified—and were going to be codified if the Election result had been different—into 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, sir.

  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 ago—I am making a silly comparison, perhaps—the 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 why—forgive me for repeating myself—there 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 opinion—which seems to be the key message.

  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 suspect—and that is why we are having this debate—there 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 it, frankly.

  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 testimony—you 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 this process?

  Tony Stables: When we discussed this at the last meeting of the External Reference Group—the proposed single, Secretary of State-signed-off Report laid before Parliament—we 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 taken—that is not the way it works. In my view—forgive me if I repeat myself—there 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 State—because it is his Report on the Bill—deals with that, technically, as the Bill is currently drafted, I don't know.

  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 on—which seems to me, in a nutshell, what it is—then 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, namely—I would say, wouldn't I?—the charities.

  Tony Stables: 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 mechanism—in fact, the only mechanism that exists at the moment—to 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 that—if you are saying that that can all be done within the Bill, well done.

  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, we—the charity sector—did 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 that through.

  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 Bill?

  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 Covenant—you 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 debate—I've seen it in debates in both Houses—about 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 do?

  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 lead—I was an infantryman, too, Sir, but back in the last century—and 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 be?

  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 of it.

  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 network—excluding Scotland, where there are, if you like, sister charities, but I know they operate a similar process, particularly Poppyscotland—so 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 say so.

  Q359 Bob Russell: Chairman, the reason behind that—as I represent a garrison town I am somewhat spoilt—is 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 legion helping?

  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 moment—I certainly see it at the tribunal—where 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 to comment.

  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 today.

  The other area—it is not the subject of this Bill, but never lose an opportunity—is 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.

  Tony Stables: 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 process—whatever that may be and whoever it is who may report to Parliament, and it is important that it does happen—will come out of whatever work is done in defining what the Covenant really is. Please don't confuse it with ERG; these are separate issues.

  Chair: Thank you to all of you.

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