The Armed Forces Bill - Armed Forces Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 367-404)

  Q367 Chair: Let us begin. Thank you very much for giving evidence. You may all have been listening to at least most of that. It will not be necessary for you all to comment on everything, but if you have things that you would like to add to the evidence that we have already heard, that would be helpful. We are most grateful to you for coming to give evidence. Please introduce yourselves.

  Dawn McCafferty: I am Dawn McCafferty. I am Chairman of the RAF Families Federation, which is an independent organisation parented by the RAF Association. I have been in this job since 2007.

  Julie McCarthy: My name is Julie McCarthy, and I am Chief Executive of the Army Families Federation.

  Kim Richardson: I am Kim Richardson, Chair of the Naval Families Federation.

  John Moore-Bick: John Moore-Bick. I am General Secretary of the Forces Pension Society, which is not a charity. It is a not-for-profit company constituted as a membership society. Our members are serving, retired, associated, related and sympathetic. We carry the interests of the Armed Forces pension community, which numbers up to 1 million people. I am delighted to be here with the Families Federations today, because I want to underline the point that pensions are husband and wife affairs—they are whole family affairs—and we must consider that in this context.

  Q368 Chair: Many of the questions will be repeats of the earlier ones. How do you expect this Bill to impact on the Service personnel and their families. Who would like to begin?

  Kim Richardson: I would say that, if you asked the standard family in the street, they probably wouldn't say that they have a lot of knowledge about the Armed Forces Bill. It is something that happens every five years. Things change. By nature, we accept change and we move forward. In the seven years that I have been doing this job, no one has ever mentioned the Armed Forces Bill to me.

  Q369 Chair: I think we all accept that most people will be unaware that this Bill exists—throughout the country and the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, the contents of this Bill may affect the lives of Service personnel. How do you feel about that?

  Dawn McCafferty: What we would like to see is that the Covenant, in whatever way it is enshrined in law and with whatever words you want to use, does actually make a difference at a grass-roots level. We are looking to go below the legislation and the Covenant and focus on the measures, because that's what will make the difference. If you ask personnel in the RAF what they know about the Service Personnel Command Paper and the Military or Armed Forces Covenant, like Kim, I think they would say that they have very little awareness, but there is a feeling that there is a need for fair treatment.

  At the moment, there is a real feeling within the Armed Forces that they are being battered from all sides. Whilst it is not the best time to launch a Covenant that says, "Your Government values you and wants to look after you," when they are in the middle of a redundancy programme and base closures, etc., the very fact that this is being taken forward to underpin future work and to take forward what has already been done is very important. It is for us—the Families Federations—in liaison with the chain of command to get the message across to our families that this is important and it could, if properly resourced, deliver some significant change.

  Julie McCarthy: I completely support what Dawn said. This is much more about what the deliverables are. In the Army, we have talked about the Military Covenant a lot. It is something that has very much come from the Army, and expanding it to the Armed Forces is a very good idea. But I would also say that fine words will not deliver the housing, the education and the health care that we discussed earlier. It is very much about those actions. If we are going to report on it, it is very much about what the Report comes out with and what the actions are, rather than just putting words within the Bill.

  Kim Richardson: Can I caveat that and just say that, until something actually impacts on you as a family, you don't tend to go and look for this sort of stuff? We found that with the Command Paper. Until people need one particular aspect of it and to get their head around it and make it work for them, they don't tend to go looking for it.

  John Moore-Bick: The progression of this Armed Forces Bill, including debate on the Covenant, will help us all come to a common understanding of what the Covenant is. I was part of the Chief of General Staff's original team working on the Covenant in 1997, and it was a very academic concept. The leader of that was Professor Richard Holmes and it was drawn out of history. It is a philosophical concept; it can never be a shopping list. What will come from this is an understanding that the Covenant extends in its reach from the newest child of a Service family to the 105-year-old pensioner who I am looking after in hospital at the moment. It is a very wide, embracing concept with two sides. The side that is assuming responsibility may also have the right to say to those for whom it's responsible, "Look, we think you're not meeting your side of the concept." So it is a two way thing. It is a philosophical concept and we need to get to a common understanding of it, especially if we want to enshrine any regime in law.

  Q370 Mr Jones: It has been spun that this Bill will enshrine the Covenant in law, which clearly it doesn't. In terms of practical things that you want to see out of the Report—obviously, three areas are covered here—what else is there, or what do you see as being the benefits of the Report itself?

  Julie McCarthy: One of the things that concerns me about the report is if we take the three headings, "healthcare," "housing" and "education," the Report will comment on the commitments—the Coalition's commitments—to the Military at the moment. It doesn't necessary look inwards. We may talk about local connections and helping with house purchase, but will we talk about the Defence Estate and look internally? To me, that is a fundamental pillar of the Armed Forces Covenant. We should be providing our people with good, decent accommodation, which we are not doing at the moment, but that will probably not come into the Report. The same could be said for education and housing. I will pick up the points from the previous panel about it being very difficult. The Devolved Administrations are very good and ping some extra things in that don't necessarily reflect what is going on in England itself. What any report would have to do is not only look at the commitments that have been made, but consider what is and is not being done internally on those areas.

  Dawn McCafferty: I'd like to see any report sweep up all the various strands of work that have led us to where we are today. We've got the commitments from the Service Personnel Command Paper, some of which are still to be implemented. The Service Families Employment Skills and Task Force Report made recommendations that we are committed to monitor. There are obviously the Coalition's commitments, some of which have been introduced and others that need to be monitored to ensure that they are implemented.

  Then, of course, there is an awful lot of work within Professor Strachan's report, which we have yet to see the response to. In some ways, it is a shame that we haven't seen the response to the report, because there is a lot in there. We helped influence that report, and there is a lot that we want to see taken forward. I for one want to see that reflected in the Annual Report, whatever form it takes. We can have arguments about its independence, but as long as the content is there, we can start to really have an influence over measuring progress.

  So there is an awful lot of work going on, but we need to ensure that it is captured. We need to be sure that we can influence the content of that report, to make sure that certain things that are, perhaps, little too difficult or require too many resources, or where there is a lack of appetite to go into certain areas, that we are able to ensure that it goes on to the agenda.

  Kim Richardson: I would just add that whatever we do, it has to be meaningful and achievable, and we cannot exceed expectations. Our families are a bit worn out with raised expectations, and we need to be realistic in whatever we do. That is very important.

  John Moore-Bick: I see no mention of pensions anywhere. Pay and pensions are the two sides of the same coin. You can never talk about one without talking about the other. They are both the bedrock of trust. Reports of any sort—either Service Personnel Command Paper, the work of the ERG or this work—if it does not mention pay and pensions, it does not hit the key notes that people want to see.

  Q371 Chair: Expectations. Do you think there is a risk that this Bill, or this clause, will create expectations that might not be met?

  Kim Richardson: I think so. We have to be careful. I have been doing this job for seven years now. On the upside, I would never have said seven years ago that I would be sitting here today. We have progressed and we have moved forward. We have achieved a lot for our families. But I would also say that during those seven years expectations have been raised in certain areas. Housing and Service families accommodation is one. We have not met those expectations. In fact, we have taken a backward step. I think that families are feeling very bruised at the moment, particularly Royal Navy and Royal Marines families. They have had a bit of a double whammy. Whatever you do today, whatever you decide, my plea would be not to promise anything that you cannot deliver.

  Julie McCarthy: I come at that from a slightly different angle from Kim. I would say that we should raise those expectations, and we should be holding the Government of the day to account no matter what colour they are, saying, "This is what we expect." There may be reasons why, at the moment, they are not delivering it, but that should be the aspiration and we should keep pushing. My concern is that if we do not raise expectations on housing, the budget will disappear. We need to keep pushing, and questions need to keep being asked. At the moment, it is only the Families Federations asking those questions.

  Q372 Christopher Pincher: At the risk of repeating myself, the one element of the Bill that is to be enshrined in law is the requirement on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on those three areas—housing, health care and education. There seems to be an acceptance from the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, who appeared before us the other day, and from the Royal British Legion that those three core pillars should be included. I suspect, Mr Moore-Bick, that you are going to say that pensions should also be included as a pillar.

  John Moore-Bick: May I make a comment on that? We used to tell people that we dealt with 400 cases a month. That has shot up to 600 cases a month. That gives you a good barometer of the concern and worry that there is about pensions. For years and years, it was the bedrock of trust. Now we have had a go at it and rattled it, and people are worried. I think that they should be included.

  Q373 Christopher Pincher: You also heard that when Gavin Barlow gave evidence at the meeting before last, he made it clear that he anticipates that within the three pillars, plus the dynamic fourth pillar, plus any other pillars that might be created, both qualitative and quantitative targets would be set, which could be measured over a set of reports to demonstrate whether progress is being made. Do you think that is a sensible and sufficiently flexible approach?

  Dawn McCafferty: One of the challenges is where you start measuring. I think that was the challenge with a lot of the Service Personnel Command Paper stuff. We did not have a particularly great database of evidence on which to say, "Where are we measuring our progress from?" So I think that will be the challenge, when you actually identify areas of work you want to take forward—for instance, to support Service families, whether in transition, housing or welfare—and to define the start point and then set a reasonable, realistic, achievable target that, as we say, does not raise expectations too far, but does push the fact that we need to make progress and recognise the unique nature of family life.

  I would like to see measures in the Report, and I would like to be able to provide evidence. I would say that the Families Federations can provide meaningful evidence to inform that Report, but we need to be consulted. When the Bill was put to us, I do not think the fact that those three areas were highlighted came as a surprise to the three of us, but we were not asked whether we thought they were the right ones. I heard you earlier going through another list of potential areas that might go through in an amendment, and I for one would say I would like a little time to look at that, because I could probably identify some others.

  I particularly welcome the catch-all of having that flexible pillar that says, "And anything else that members of the Reference Group"—be they independent members or administration members—"feel is important to include." I think that is what we are asking for—an opportunity to influence that, so that it is not just what the Secretary of State says: "I am going to report on this and I am not interested in what your particular agendas might be."

  Julie McCarthy: I think it is also about practical application. We can have the policies—we have had fantastic news recently about pupil premium for Service children, which will go a long way to help schools. There are some schools—I know that in Tidworth, with 96% Service children—that will spend that money wisely. Other schools have few Service children and there are no guidelines or rules about what the money will be spent on. It could go on a new staff-room table—I hope it does not—but there are no guidelines for that money. So the policy has been very good, but we need to measure the practical application.

  Q374 Christopher Pincher: Just in terms of the Report—perhaps you will like to comment on this—can I put it to you that having a sensible base line set, from which you can then demonstrate progress and focus minds, within the MoD, Parliament and outside, is a more sensible approach than the extremely prescriptive one about what rules and regulations should apply. Would that be right?

  Dawn McCafferty: Yes.

  Julie McCarthy: Yes.

  Kim Richardson: One size doesn't fit all. Each of our families are absolutely individual in the way they choose to live their lives, so I would see as positive anything that can make that as flexible as possible.

  Q375 Bob Russell: This is to Julie McCarthy, but it also applies to the other two ladies as well. You mentioned the pupil premium. I wonder if you could submit a paper to the Committee, because my understanding is that it is just possible that the criteria under which children benefit from the pupil premium may not include children of Military families unless certain criteria are met. I would like to know how we may have to square that circle. In my mind, the turbulence factors and so on for children of Military families are such that they are exactly the sort of people who should receive pupil premium, but as things stand that may not happen.

  Chair: Now as regards submitting papers, we don't want to add to the burden on the charitable sector; so do that only if it were something you could do without being disproportionate.

  Q376 Bob Russell: If you can provide the answer now, brilliant; but I suspect it needs a wee bit of research.

  Julie McCarthy: My understanding is that as long as a child is registered as a Service child on the school census the school receives the pupil premium. My concern is that the standard admissions forms for schools do not include a tick box that says, "Are you a Service family?" Is it for the school to ask or the family to volunteer that information? That's the bigger concern for me.

  Dawn McCafferty: The other concern as well is that there was quite a short of period of time in which to get parents to register. Julie has raised the fact that maybe families haven't initially registered themselves as a Service family for whatever reason, and we have had a major campaign to try and ensure that our families were aware that if they wished to they should register because then they could get additional funds into the school. There was quite a short window in which to register, so we may find that actually the take-up is bigger next year when they've got more time to go through the registration process. But, as Julie says, I think the key thing for us is perhaps to go and gather that evidence in the schools as to what they are doing with that money. For example, there is a school near us where my child goes—Cranwell Primary School—where there is a very high percentage of RAF children. We are confident that the headmaster has got projects in place that he will want funding for to support the children of deployed RAF families. But in other schools with smaller populations, that money could just get lost in the noise, and that is not what it is intended for. Perhaps those children who are in a minority in a large school need even more support, because they do not have lots of mates around them who are going through that same experience. So we need to also follow through with our schools to say, "Exactly what are you doing with the money that has been given to you?"

  Q377 Gemma Doyle: To follow on from Christopher's questions—if you were here for the session before, you would have heard me ask this then as well—if we are going to specify in the Bill the issues which the Secretary of State should report on, do you think that that list should be more reflective of the Secretary of State's own responsibilities within the MoD, and as such extended to cover, for example, pay and pensions, issues about the compensation scheme, employment and training—those kinds of things?

  Julie McCarthy: I would say most definitely; it is a bit disingenuous to comment about people leaving being able to buy houses again when the housing estate is deteriorating, so I think absolutely the Secretary of State should be looking internally as well, because that is a complete side of the triangle if you are looking at the Covenant. He should comment on this.

  Dawn McCafferty: To take an example of that from the Service Personnel Command Paper: all the references to housing were to do with housing provision externally in terms of housing associations' access, etc. There was nothing in there about Defence Estates and provision of the MoD Housing Estate, which is obviously a huge concern to us. So I would agree that if it is not in the list in the Bill, it is something that we would want to bring to the table in respect of Terms and Conditions of Service, welfare and MoD responsibility for housing, because that is our core business.

  Q378 Chair: Mr Moore-Bick, you said you said you thought pensions should be in the Bill.

  John Moore-Bick: I think so, because there is so much concern at the moment that there ought to be some responsibility laid on the Secretary of State to tell Parliament about the whole pay and pensions area. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body is a very fair medium on the pay side, but there is nobody prepared to talk—in a climate of almost frenetic pensions debate—about the Armed Forces and pensions. That ought to be remedied.

  Q379 Chair: What about allowances?

  John Moore-Bick: I am not competent to speak on allowances, but I think the Federations are.

  Dawn McCafferty: There are elements of the allowances package that are the responsibility of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and we inform them of our views, but there are other aspects that are not.

  Julie McCarthy: I would like to see the Secretary of State commenting on those; I feel at the moment, with the allowance cuts in January and the review of the continuity of education allowance going on at the moment, many families feel that there is a consistent erosion of their terms and conditions of Service. If the Secretary of State had to comment on that in the Report, and there was a proper cross-party debate on it, that would be useful and would make Service personnel and their families feel that it was being widely discussed and fair decisions were being made.

  Dawn McCafferty: If I can come back to the pensions issue: I have only been doing this for three and a half years, but pensions did not feature at all in any of our issues database casework until the last six to eight months. When we have been out doing workshops at unit level, we have started to hear people expressing concern about what is happening on the pensions front. We tend to signpost to our experts at the end of the table, but it has been quite a noticeable change of emphasis that people are beginning to look at the wider package. As Julie says, they see it as part and parcel of this erosion of their terms and conditions.

  Q380 Gemma Doyle: As UK-wide organisations, would you share my concern that it would be regrettable if the Bill did not include any issues on which the Secretary of State had to report which applied to Scottish or Welsh veterans, which is the case at the moment?

  Kim Richardson: What the External Reference Group has allowed us to do is develop relationships not only with other Government Departments, but also with Wales and Scotland. It is fair to say that the Welsh Assembly has really grabbed that and moved forward with it. We have families living in Scotland and, coming back to the pupil premium, within a day of that being announced, the first e-mail I got was from Faslane in Scotland saying, "What about us?" They sometimes feel slightly marginalised when they see the way things are being delivered in England, so anything we can do to take that north of the border, and west, we should be doing.

  Dawn McCafferty: Our earlier colleagues spoke of the strengths of the External Reference Group in terms of sitting at the table with Devolved Administrations and Government Administration officials, and we as a Federation have really welcomed the opportunity to engage at that level. I for one feel we are a respected and welcome member of that group. As Kim says, we have been invited to go to the expert group in Wales and give evidence there. There is sometimes a lack of awareness of what the military lifestyle is from a family or veteran perspective, and it is great to have the opportunity to take our evidence to a much broader audience than Kim might have been able to seven years ago. We are in a completely different ballpark, and that engagement must continue.

  Kim Richardson: I would add the words, "receptive audience". For the first time, people are asking what Service families are all about—they really want to get us—and while that door is open, we need to be knocking on it.

  Q381 Gemma Doyle: A final question if I may: would you welcome the External Reference Group having an input into what issues would be in the Report, rather than simply the Secretary of State deciding what issues he or she would report to Parliament on?

  Dawn McCafferty: I think that is critical. If we felt that the Secretary of State was dictating what those issues were and we weren't being listened to then I think each of us would find our own way of making our voice heard.

  John Moore-Bick: I think the External Reference Group is quite exclusive. I am reliant on the chairman of COBSEO to put anything from my area into it, so we might need to look at the External Reference Group again.

  Q382 Mr Francois: The previous witnesses were all quite positive about the work of the External Reference Group in terms of co-ordinating the work of different Government Departments and delivering at ground level—which I think is partly what you were talking about. I take it you all very much support what it does. While we have you here, if it were to evolve beyond its original statutory purpose, which was not directly related to the Covenant, and you had your own way, how would you see the ERG evolve further, and how do you think it could add more value than it appears to be doing now?

  Dawn McCafferty: This answer should be attributed to Julie McCarthy - my answer is below. We have made representations to the Local Government Association and I would very much like to see it getting down into those sorts of levels as well, whether it is through a single representative or whether we go out separately. I think the advocates from the other Government Departments find it very difficult—they represent their own Departments very well, very strongly, and do engage with us. I am not sure if it was Tony Stables or Chris Simpkins who mentioned the independent nature, but I'm not sure we are an independent External Reference Group. We are independent panel members, and for the Report going forward I would like to see those independent members deciding what should be reported on, rather than the External Reference Group as a whole. But we would need to change the terms of reference if we were to include the Armed Forces Bill work going on.

  Kim Richardson: We also ought to ask the other Government Departments who else they feel they would benefit from having on that Group, because they have opened that door and engaged, but there must be other areas that they feel are not represented—they're almost sitting at the table because they have to be there—so I think we need to be asking the question of them as well.

  Dawn McCafferty: One thing to develop is the visits to the Armed Forces community that the ERG undertake, which have happened throughout the development of that group—I think it is the RAF's turn next. It is great to have the opportunity to take people, very often from completely non-military backgrounds, to an RAF, Army or Navy base and let them engage with family members, see what people are actually doing, and talk to them. That aspect of what we do—it is not in the terms of reference—is very healthy. It is a good exchange of views and I really feel that empathy and understanding is the way forward to make sure people understand what we are asking for. We are not asking for special treatment; we are just asking for understanding and a fair playing field most of the time.

  John Moore-Bick: We in the COBSEO executive committee must see how the views of the various organisations of the committee are brought into the work of the ERG, and that is internal work for us to do.

  Q383 Gemma Doyle: How would you respond to the evidence from the Bill Team that the Report of the Secretary of State is going to replace the Report of the ERG, and that that will now be lost?

  Dawn McCafferty: That is a work in progress. We have discussed that only very recently in the ERG and we all gave our views and expressed some concerns that we had about our lack of independence and ability to influence it. I thought that we had agreed—I may be wrong—that we would take it forward to try to draft the first Annual Report, bearing in mind that it is an annual report on something that does not exist at the moment. We are breaking new territory with this Report.

  We have done two other annual reports, and I have to say that I think the way they were drafted and staffed, and the way we were consulted and our views were taken into account was very good, bearing in mind that it is a compromise—Tony Stables made it clear that there are many constituents of the Armed Forces community, and that there has to be a compromise. You cannot fit everything into a report. It cannot be hugely family-biased or veteran-biased. There has to be balance in the report, and I think they managed to achieve that, certainly with the first Annual Report. The second one was less in-depth because of the change in Administration.

  We just have to see how the drafting goes forward, and have a little bit of faith in the Cabinet Office and the MoD, but we are all bright enough and strong enough personalities to step back if we do not like what is coming out in draft. We can draw a line and say that we need another opportunity, either to have our own chapter, to have a covering letter or to have a separate report. I would not want to define right now what we will do or what the Report should look like. I really think we have to have a bit of time to work it through as a group, because you can already see that there are differences between the independent members in our views on the Report. We have to work out between us how we want to shape it.

  Q384 Mr Ellwood: You mentioned the size of the Report, which provides a useful opportunity for asking what is currently expected to be in the Report itself. You mentioned pensions as being something new that has been coming across your desk recently and which you are passing on. Looking at the three headings—health care, housing and education—that already exist, in your experience are they the correct main headings? Is that where you are spending your time? Are Service personnel aware that those are the main concerns that you can provide help with?

  Kim Richardson: We are in a strange place at the moment because there are lots of things on the way, and we do not know how they will impact on families. While I would say that those three things are reflected in the sorts of things we see, I would agree with Dawn that for the first time families are talking about pensions. I have never heard that before, and I think that it is because they are seen as another thing on top of everything else that they have experienced to date. I do not think that we can stovepipe or put our markers in the sand, because the next few months will be very interesting for our families and we might find that something develops on transitioning out of the Service that we had not considered before. We have to keep our eye on the ball, as we always do, sit in mess decks, talk to sailors and families and determine over the next few months where we are going.

  Q385 Mr Ellwood: I do not know whether I am a reflection of the attitude, but when I served in the Armed Forces, I did not think about what I was going to do on the other side of leaving the Armed Forces until the last point. I think that many soldiers, sailors and airmen do exactly the same—I am as disorganised as the next person. Are personnel more conscious now of the parameters in which they are working and what they should be expecting in the future, considering the higher profile that our Armed Forces are taking because of their duties and the consequences of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular?

  Kim Richardson: I think there is a sense of nervousness at the moment. There are people out there who do not know what the future holds for them, and that is not a good place to be. I can identify with your view about building up to leaving the Service, seeing civvy street as something that perhaps it is not, and not necessarily doing the planning. The people who often end up doing the planning are the family behind the serving person, and at the moment we really need to consider them more than we ever have before. All of you need to consider them more than you ever have before, because they are really special people making that difference on a day-to-day basis.

  Q386 Mr Ellwood: So to break the transition down, before they actually turn into a veteran, which is when you traditionally think support should come in, the family needs to start planning. The individual, perhaps, tries to dismiss that, but it should be done while they are still serving. You would suggest that that is not in place to the level that it should be, that the focus of attention while people are serving is not on that.

  Dawn McCafferty: There is a very good system in place. The serving person can take good advantage of a resettlement process that can start as early as two years before a known exit date. The problem is that they may not yet know that they are exiting. They're sitting there at the moment, hoping to get further Service and avoid redundancy, but they don't know yet. They don't whether their base is going to close. They don't whether their partner is going to lose their civil service job etc. This horrible climate of uncertainty is really corrosive to morale. Clarity is required and, as you say, then we need to look at what we are doing to support those people who now find themselves, at quite short notice, potentially having to find a new career.

  I talk with journalists and they say, "Well, why are you any different? Lots of other, civilian organisations are facing redundancies and pay freezes etc." They don't realise the link very often between the Service person and the home and family, in that if you lose your job, you lose your home as well. You're going to be evicted from Defence Estates property. You'll have to go and find a job. You may need to relocate back to where you joined the Armed Forces from, or try to establish a new career in a new part of the country. People just need to get their head around that. It's what makes it so difficult to transition. As I said, there is a very good process in place for the serving person. We need perhaps to consider how we can enhance support for the partners and children behind that.

  Julie McCarthy: Spouses may have chequered CVs, and it may be two people going out and finding a new job. When somebody leaves the Service, it is not just the Service man finding a new job; it is both people going out there. That adds to the difficulty.

  John Moore-Bick: That last bit is the core of "The Unique Nature of Military Service", which I know Tony Stables has told you about this morning. That is a COBSEO document that lies at the root of the Covenant and covers all the things that Dawn McCafferty was just talking about.

  If I can go back to your Service, my Service, we never, ever considered the pension until the time came to go. That was because we could take it for granted. Now, people can't take it for granted. Our message to Service men is that at any stage in their career, not just when they are resettling, if they fail to consider their pension entitlement and conditions, they cannot make the decision whether to go for the next stage of promotion, to move or to stop where they are because of a spouse's job or anything of that sort. Pension considerations, which used to be left until the last minute, now have to come into play at other critical stages of life, and there is a greater awareness of that.

  Q387 Mr Ellwood: On pensions, I just note, Chairman, that I was asked about my pension when I left and I was given the opportunity to continue it as a pension or to be given it as a lump sum there and then. I just took the money—it's the only time in my life I've not been in debt. But there is a balance you need to look at. I just took the money and ran.

  Kim Richardson: Perhaps your wife should have had some say.

  John Moore-Bick: Perhaps I can make that point. Our message to the Federations is that spouses need to take a greater interest in this than their husbands. Their husbands are too busy to worry about it. The spouses are the ones who will take it for longer; they will suffer if it's not right; and five sixths of them, I'm afraid, will end up as widows.

  Dawn McCafferty: There is also an awareness issue about what happens to a pension after divorce and some serving personnel getting caught out, not realising that their partner will have a claim on an element of their pension when they leave. Again, there is now a growing awareness within the serving community that pensions are important and need to be considered earlier than perhaps they were in your time, Mr Ellwood.

  Chair: That of itself is a welcome awareness.

  Q388 Jack Lopresti: Have any of your organisations done any specific research into what sort of Military Covenant serving personnel would like to see?

  Kim Richardson: The Royal Navy has never, in my view, got its head round the Military Covenant. It has been seen as an Army concept. One of the things I would really like to say today is that we need to decide what this will be called and to stick to it. We've already had the Service Personnel Command Paper. We're now talking about the Military Covenant. But some of the paperwork refers to an Armed Forces Covenant. I believe this should be an Armed Forces Covenant, and if the Army wants to stick with its military one, that's fine and dandy, but let's decide what it is and then we can actually ask people what they think of it. At the moment, if you sat down with a group of sailors in a mess deck and asked them about the Military Covenant, they would say, "Nothing to do with me. That's an Army concept." Actually, what we're talking about today is very much to do with them. That's my first plea: let's decide what we're going to call it and stick with it.

  Dawn McCafferty: We haven't done any specific research, but there is a general awareness among the serving population and families that there is this relationship between the Nation, the communities and the Armed Forces that they would wish to see in some way recognised. They are probably not interested in whether that's done through an Armed Forces Bill, but recognition of what they do is something that most Service personnel would like to see. We have done no specific research yet but, as Kim said, it would be great to actually define it. Perhaps we can get the principles that the RBL representative was talking about distilled, then we can go and ask people what they think of them and find out whether those are the right principles.

  Kim Richardson: When the Service Command Paper was introduced, it was fascinating, because you would go out and say to a group of families or serving personnel, "What does the Service Command Paper mean to you?" The answer was, "Nothing." If you started to pick out the strands of the Command Paper and talk about them as individual things, they got it. They had heard about it and they knew what it was. Did they ever associate the two? No. We have to get that right this time, or we are in danger of really losing something here.

  John Moore-Bick: Can I go back to the origins of the Covenant? The reason that we did so much work on it in the Army, in the late '90s, was to form the framework in which we could define a code of conduct for the Army. The origins of the Covenant were the opposite way round to the way that we are now interpreting it. It wasn't, "The Government must give this"; it was saying, "You, in your code of conduct, must meet your part of the Covenant to do this". It was, and is, infused in Army doctrine in order to persuade soldiers of their duties and why their duty to society is such. It is opposite to the way that we are talking about the Covenant now. That's the other part of it.

  Q389 Jack Lopresti: I picked up from the last panel that they weren't in favour of the Covenant being too specifically defined and prescriptive of minimum standards. Would that be your view: that you would prefer it to be broader and more adaptive?   

  John Moore-Bick: I liked what I heard about a set of principles. I think that is good—a set of principles with very wide boundaries, from the youngest newborn child of a Service family, as I said earlier, to the 105-year-old widow that I'm looking after at the moment.

  Dawn McCafferty: It is about the generic style of a Covenant that allows us flexibility, so that you can work within the spirit of the Covenant, but not necessarily to the letter of the law that has been written down—I think that would be too prescriptive. We found that with the Command Paper. We had an opportunity—there were specific measures that we were monitoring, and we would report and give evidence against them, but if there was something that was allied to that area, we could bring that to the table and ask if that could also be considered. If you make it too prescriptive, the answer would be "Oh no, that is not what the Covenant is about." So, I would prefer to see something generic as the framework document, but then, the devil is in the detail of the measures. This comes back to that table of measures, and to working out exactly what it is we're measuring. Where do we start, and what evidence is required in order to inform a report?

  Q390 Chair: John Moore-Bick, were you in at the birth of the Covenant?

  John Moore-Bick: Yes, I was, Mr Chairman.

  Q391 Chair: What was the date of that birth, would you say?

  John Moore-Bick: It was around 1997. The reason for it was that there had been a lot of examples of bad behaviour by all sorts of armies in the Balkans. We wanted to get a code of conduct in place for the Army. We looked for academic help and there was this idea of a Covenant, which meant giving your Service and accepting, unquestioningly, the loyalty and support of the State in various things. As I say, it was started as a foundation for the code of conduct.

  Q392 Chair: Isn't it generally attributed to Field Marshal Inge, in the genesis of this?

  John Moore-Bick: I think he was the Chief of the Defence Staff at the time. I think Roger Wheeler was the Chief of the General Staff.

  Chair: Yes, I see.

  Q393 Bob Russell: Very briefly, although there are clearly differences between the Services, there are many similarities, particularly when it comes to the families of Service personnel. Although you are three separate groups, do you actually work with unity, strength and all that? Each of you individually do a grand job, but do you come together and put pressure on the MoD and whatever?

  Kim Richardson: We do. When we need to, we do, but I would say that our main objective is to represent our own constituents, and our constituents are, as you say, very different. We respect that, so the relationship between the three of us—I think—is better than it has ever been, because we talk and exchange ideas. We don't always agree, but that's fine.

  Q394 Bob Russell: But you are sharing experiences and best practice, which is really the point. Thank you for that. My last question is, do you individually and collectively feel that there is sufficient engagement with the line of command and the Ministry of Defence?

  Julie McCarthy: I do, personally. I have very good engagement at all levels and have co-ordinators across the world. The chain of command within the Army generally liaise very well, because they see that the welfare of families is key to the welfare and operational effectiveness of their soldiers. So I would say yes, up to and including into the MoD as well, and that is very important.

  Dawn McCafferty: I think that our engagement is where I would want it to be, and the ERG is a very important part for us. To be able to look our families in the eye and say, "When you give us evidence we take it, undiluted, to the top," is really important to us.

  Kim Richardson: We have direct and open access, and for me that is from the First Sea Lord down, so I can't complain. If I go somewhere and the door is not quite as open as I would like it to be, I can always keep going up, but on the whole we don't have to. I see us very much as being a conduit for our families, and I don't think that they've ever been in such a good place in terms of access.

  John Moore-Bick: We advise all the Chiefs of Staff on their pensions, so we get very close co-operation from the chain of command.

  Q395 Chair: Do you feel that you have that direct and open access?

  John Moore-Bick: To the chain of command, and with the Ministry of Defence it ebbs and flows.

  Chair: We will move away from the issue of the Covenant to the issue of the Service complaints procedure. Alex Cunningham.

  Q396 Alex Cunningham: How well do you think the complaints system that was recently introduced in the previous Armed Forces Bill has been functioning? Is it fit for purpose? In particular, has the introduction of Service Complaints Panels improved the perception of the fairness and independence of the system?

  Julie McCarthy: It is difficult for us to comment on the Service Complaints Panel, but having a Service Complaints Commissioner in place has been a great improvement. It is still very difficult for families to complain about things within Service that they are concerned about, because it is very allied to the chain of command. For them to take anything forward, it needs to go through the serving soldier. It is good that Service personnel, and families if they feel that the Service person needs to make a complain, can go to someone independent, but I would just like to see a lot more resources for Dr Atkins to do the job that she needs to do.

  Q397 Alex Cunningham: So, more resources, but what else needs to happen?

  Dawn McCafferty: There needs to be more authority to her role, because at the moment there is a perception, I think, from some who wish to make a complaint, that it is just going to be referred back to the chain of command and you are basically asking them to judge their own decisions.

  The independent Panels have been a good step forward, and Dr Atkins has brought a much-needed focus on the Tri-Service complaints arena. One thing that she has really been able to focus on is delay. One of the big things about making a complaint is that in the past there were very significant delays, which caused enormous stress and difficulty. She has really kept a focus on the Services, making sure that they look at a complaint and deal with it as speedily as they can.

  That is an improvement, but I have had requests from family members saying, "I want Dr Atkins and her team to do the investigation. I don't want it to go back to the RAF or MoD staffs; why can't she do it?" She does not, of course, have that authority, and she certainly doesn't have the resources. We meet with her reasonably frequently, just for an exchange of views, ideas and experiences. I know that she has a huge backlog of casework that she just can't keep up with, and that is of concern because that backlog is individual people and families who have an issue that they want to see resolved. Perhaps the answer isn't what they want to hear at the end of the day, but they need to go through that process. If she has a backlog, then by implication the Services have as well.

  Q398 Alex Cunningham: So what sort of delay are people seeing?

  Dawn McCafferty: I am not sure. I would have to go back and ask her what stats she has. Certainly, she told me that she had several hundred cases outstanding.

  Alex Cunningham: Yes, she said that in her evidence.

  Q399 Chair: On that point, was the delay, when she spoke to you about it, caused by a lack of resources for her, or by a delay within the Armed Services in dealing with her issues?

  Dawn McCafferty: I don't know for sure, but I would suggest that it is probably a combination of the two. The Armed Forces are incredibly busy and very stretched, and a complaints process stretches them even further because you have to go through such a detailed process of disclosure and finding evidence, and of then putting it through an administrative process. So I suspect that it is a combination of the two: she perhaps lacks the resources to get the complaint into the system in the first place, and the Armed Forces need the resources to turn the complaints around, do a proper, thorough investigation and come up with a result.

  Q400 Chair: The point she made to us was that if there was one improvement she would like to see in the Armed Forces, it was that they would deal with her cases more quickly.

  Dawn McCafferty: You would have to ask her, but that is certainly the sort of information she has given to us.

  John Moore-Bick: She tells me that a lot of people talk to her to let off steam on pay and pensions, but they never actually launch a complaint through her, because there is another system for doing that.

  Kim Richardson: All I would add is that we have a pretty good reciprocal arrangement. She directs people to us, and we direct people to her. I go back to what I said earlier about managing expectation. Certain serving members expected her to deliver something that she was not put in place to deliver.

  Q401 Alex Cunningham: So there is a lack of understanding?

  Kim Richardson: I think so.

  Q402 Alex Cunningham: So what needs to happen?

  Kim Richardson: It is early days, and, again, it is one of those things that people only look for when they feel that they need it. When they reach that point, they are often past it—they need to look five minutes before. So when they do go to look for it, they see it as a panacea, and perhaps it is not. There may also have been something that they could have done beforehand, perhaps through the chain of command, that they had not necessarily considered. So I think it is back to communication, making sure that they are given the right information and managing expectations.

  Alex Cunningham: It may well be the case that you cannot answer that question, which we put to the other panels, so we shall let it rest.

  Q403 Chair: Thank you all very much indeed. Is there anything we have not covered that you would like to raise with us or emphasise?

  Kim Richardson: I have one thing. Towards the end, somebody asked about charities. I work in a building with Royal Naval charities that are doing a sterling job. They are not the big Gucci boys that you have had here today, but they are doing a really good job. Although the well known names are in the public eye and being seen, and money is heading in their direction from the public, there are charities that have been in place for a long time and are struggling in some areas. So, although COBSEO speaks for charities, you are perhaps not getting a complete picture.

  Bob Russell: The point I was trying to make is that we need to reflect and praise the charities at grass-roots level. I would identify two specific charities—the War Widows Association and Veterans Aid—both of which do valuable work. They are very small, but they often do not get the credit they deserve.

  Q404 Chair: Any other points?

  Julie McCarthy: Mr Russell asked about engagement with MPs, and I would suggest that it needs to go even lower than that. Local councillors need to be engaged with much more, because they deliver the local services. Having recently moved from Berkshire down to Hampshire, I know that our local council does not engage very much because it perceives families and serving personnel to be very well looked after by the MoD, so we are not its responsibility; whereas, actually, we are—we are citizens first. For me, as the spouse of a serving person, that is where the responsibility lies, and I would like to see engagement with councils enhanced as much as engagement with MPs.

  Dawn McCafferty: I would raise the issue of the sensitivity of timing and communication. This is not a good time to launch a Covenant. I know that we have to go through the process, and I am delighted to see that work is going on to legislate for it and allow us a mechanism to carry on some very good work, but the average airman at grass-roots level is not going to be particularly receptive to a big fanfare for what we are doing to support a Covenant at this stage.

  We have to be sensitive to communicating this very carefully to a very bruised community, who, if they are worried about whether they have a job or a home for the next year or so, are not going to be interested, quite frankly, in the Covenant. It is a building block for the future, and it is not going to deliver immediate results. It is not necessarily going to stop people from being made redundant or losing their home. So we have to be really sensitive.

  I spoke with the Chief of the Air Staff yesterday and said that we need to have a robust communication channel. We will contribute to that to make sure that we don't raise expectations and, frankly, do not piss them all off, because this is not a good time for the Armed Forces. A Covenant at this stage is not necessarily what they want to hear.

  John Moore-Bick: The pension scheme has been in effect for nearly a century. With Lord Hutton working on pensions now for the next 40 or 50 years, we need to take this opportunity to sort out some of the rough edges. We have not talked about indexation, or anything like that, today, but there are going to be some savings, That gives us some margin to make some minor adjustments to get it right for the next 20, 30 or 40 years.

  Chair: Thank you very much indeed for a fantastic session. I think that has been one of the most valuable evidence sessions I have been to. We are most grateful.

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