The Armed Forces Bill

AFB 07

Written evidence from the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England

1. The Church of England welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Commons Armed Forces Bill Committee’s inquiry into the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill. The Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England is the body responsible for overseeing research and comment on social and political issues on behalf of the Church. The Council comprises a representative group of bishops, clergy and lay people with interest and expertise in the relevant areas, and reports to the General Synod through the Archbishops’ Council.

Summary

2. Of the eight groupings of clauses set out in the Bill, the focus of this submission is on Clause 2, on those provisions that relate to the Military Covenant.        The submission draws on our own theological understanding of what ‘covenant’ entails as well as the insights on welfare matters provided by chaplains that have served and are serving in the armed forces. The insights of many church based voluntary services that provide pastoral and welfare support to veterans and their family has also informed this submission.

3. The Coalition Government’s commitment to rebuilding the Military Covenant is clearly reflected in this Bill and we congratulate the Coalition Government for taking this step to repair the Military Covenant.

4. We believe, however, that a legitimate and convincing case can be made for ensuring that the annual report to Parliament on the health of the military covenant is entrusted to an independent reviewer of armed service welfare rather than left to the discretion of the Secretary of State for Defence.

5. The Lord Bishop of Wakefield touched on these matters in the recent debate that he sponsored in the House of Lords last month. [1] This submission expands on these comments and makes practical suggestions as to how this recommendation might be included within the face of this Bill.

Clause 2 – Working Assumptions

6. We agree with the assumption underpinning the Bill’s understanding of the military covenant, namely that the covenant is fundamentally a moral rather than legal contract involving the government, the nation and the armed forces. We are therefore encouraged that the Bill does not propose a formal legal contract or attempts to define in law the exact nature of the relationships underpinning the Military Covenant. That we believe is best done by the writing of a new Tri-Service Covenant. The living out of any Covenant should remain dependent on the commitment and trust between parties rather than on a more legalistic and prescriptive contract in which outcomes and behaviour are predetermined.

Clause 2 – Welfare Provisions

7. It follows from this that we agree that the Bill’s provisions should not explicitly state what welfare provisions Service personnel, their dependants, or veterans should be entitled to as part of any Military Covenant. We would encourage the Coalition Government to resist any steps that might seek to set in law any minimum standards of care.

Clause 2 – Review Mechanisms

8. Since the moral contract underpinning the Military Covenant constitutes a reciprocal agreement with expectations and obligations on both sides, we agree that a review mechanism needs to be provided by law to ensure that the underlying trust and commitments that binds parties together is monitored and maintained. We do not however believe that the Bill’s provisions stipulating that the Secretary of State for Defence present an Armed Forces Covenant Report to Parliament every year are adequate.     

9. Any review undertaken should be done so independently of the Ministry of Defence and other government departments. To this end, we would suggest that Bill should make provision for the Secretary of State to appoint a Reviewer of Armed Forces. The Reviewer of Armed Forces Welfare could monitor and report on the same provision of welfare services currently listed in Clause 2 and make suitable recommendations accordingly.

10. We believe that the Reviewer should also be able to consider other issues as s/he sees fit. This would be consistent with Clause 2 paragraph 2b of the existing Bill. The only limitation on such a provision would be if the Secretary of State for Defence issued an order preventing the Reviewer from undertaking any such review on grounds that it would put at risk national security or operational requirement and efficiency.

11. We suggest that the cost of this post should be met by the Ministry of Defence. To this end, the Secretary of State for Defence should, before the beginning of each financial year, specify a maximum sum which the Reviewer of Armed Forces Welfare may spend on functions for that year. The proposed Reviewer of Armed Forces Welfare should hold and vacate office in accordance with terms of appointment (which may include provision about retirement, resignation or dismissal).

12. We hold that the any such Reviewer of Armed Forces Welfare should report in writing to the Secretary of State every year on progress being made in meeting the welfare needs of the Armed Forces, but that s/he should produce a full welfare audit once every four calendar years. The Secretary of State for Defence should be obliged to lay before Parliament a copy of any report received from the Reviewer. A copy may of course omit material if the Secretary of State for Defence thinks that its publication is undesirable for reasons of national security, may effect operational efficiency, or might jeopardise an individual’s safety.

13. We believe that these proposals would be consistent with the spirit of the Government’s own desire to be held accountable and to ensure that it and others are honoring the covenant.

February 2011


[1] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/110127-0002.htm#11012761000712).