Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 27 February 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr David Anderson

Mr Joe Benton

Oliver Colvile

Lady Hermon

Kate Hoey

Naomi Long

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

Ian Paisley

David Simpson

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Mark Francois MP, Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, Rear-Admiral Simon Williams OBE, Defence Services Secretary, and Gavin Barlow, Director General of Service Personnel Policy, Ministry of Defence, gave evidence.

Q67Chair: Welcome, Minister, to the Select Committee. As you know, we are looking at the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland. You are very welcome; thank you very much for joining us. Could I ask you to introduce your team and invite you to make a very brief opening statement?

Mr Francois: If I may, I will introduce my team. On my right is Rear-Admiral Simon Williams, assistant chief of the defence staff for personnel, and on my left is Gavin Barlow, director of service personnel policy. We are at your disposal.

Chair: In that case, I will hand over to Ian to ask the first question.

Q68Ian Paisley: Minister, first, you are very welcome. I am delighted that you are here. The fact that you have brought with you such a strong team also reflects your consistent interest in this matter, which we greatly appreciate in Northern Ireland. It is appropriate that I put on the record that we appreciate your consistent interest in this subject; in making sure that all armed forces personnel, no matter where they live in the UK, are fairly and properly treated. We really do appreciate that.

We are being told by the armed forces community in Northern Ireland that sometimes they are disadvantaged compared with other members of the community elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Your memorandum reflects that you have greater confidence that progress is being made in equality of treatment. Would you like to reflect on some of that and set out your vision for the treatment of armed forces personnel across Ulster?

Mr Francois: Thank you for your kind comments, Mr Paisley, which are appreciated not just by me but by the Department. The Covenant is a process of working across the United Kingdom to address disadvantage to members of the service community. Different issues sometimes arise in different parts of the United Kingdom, and, therefore, sometimes we seek to address them in different ways. Generally, provision in Northern Ireland is good. There is good access to health care and housing. There are some bespoke support mechanisms for Northern Ireland, such as the Aftercare Service, which looks after former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Home Service Regiment, and charities that support members of the armed forces community are generally able to get on with their work unhindered. As part of the process, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we continue to seek to identify where any disadvantage exists in Northern Ireland and what steps are needed to address it, but overall our assessment is that provision in Northern Ireland is generally good.

Q69David Simpson: Minister, you are very, very welcome indeed with your colleagues. I echo the sentiments of Mr Paisley in relation to that excellent support. Do you believe there are areas of the Covenant where the armed forces community in Northern Ireland are disadvantaged? Is there any area that you believe is not in line with the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr Francois: I would not want to appear complacent and give you a Panglossian view. There are some areas where we need to do more work, but we have work in progress to identify where gaps still exist and where perhaps we might be able to fill them. We work very closely with the Northern Ireland Office. I should pay tribute to my fellow Minister of State, Mike Penning, who has served and whose heart is in exactly the right place with regard to all of this. As a Department we also work with individual Departments within the Northern Ireland Executive to do what we can to fill those sorts of gaps.

To provide some examples, if you look at the Further and Higher Education Commitments Scheme, eligible service leavers are provided with access to a first full Level 3, that is a GCE A-level or vocational equivalent, or a first higher education qualification, or first foundation degree, or first undergraduate degree or equivalent, free of tuition fees. At present, the scheme provides funding for service leavers who choose to settle in England, Scotland and Wales but not in Northern Ireland.

That said, I gather we are moving closer to an agreement with the relevant Department in the Northern Ireland Executive to review that position with a view hopefully to operating the same scheme in Northern Ireland. That is a concrete example of where it is not the same, and we are trying to address it.

Another example is the provision of IVF treatment for personnel who have serious genital injuries. This, Chair, is clearly a sensitive matter. In England, in most circumstances, service personnel would get three cycles of IVF. On the other hand, in Northern Ireland, currently they would be entitled only to one. Once again, I am keen to see whether we can work with the relevant Department in the Northern Ireland Executive to see if we can address that issue as well. The net of that is that we are not attempting to be Panglossian about it and, where we look to see if there are areas where we can do better, we try to address them as best we can.

Lady Hermon: I echo the opening remarks and welcome you. I apologise to all three of you for keeping you a little late. It is also delightful to see a gentleman in uniform-and those who are not in uniform, but it is delightful to see you all here.

Mr Francois: Can we minute "delightful", please?

Q70Lady Hermon: That was a compliment. Moving on swiftly, Minister, there is only one aspect of this that I want you to explain a little more to the Committee. You said there was good access to health and housing. My ears pricked up immediately, because this Committee has taken evidence that there is not good access to housing and it is one of the areas about which exservice personnel feel very aggrieved. Because of the way the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and its points system are constructed they do not benefit from "good access to housing". Perhaps you could elaborate on what evidence you have in the Ministry of Defence to show that there is good access?

Mr Francois: I will answer that in two parts. First, as the Committee will know, there is a difference in operation between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, in that in GB many local authorities who provide housing-sometimes directly and sometimes in connection with registered social landlords-give priority to armed forces families in the allocation of housing. For instance, in England, the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidance encouraging local authorities to do that anyway. In Northern Ireland they do not automatically do that. One of the reasons they have done that in the rest of GB is that, because serving families move around a lot, it is sometimes difficult to prove a local connection, and under housing legislation it can be a disadvantage if you cannot.

However, in Northern Ireland, partly because of an issue of scale, often many serving personnel who settle there do have a local connection of one type or another, either because they come from there or they return to settle there after service. Therefore, because in many cases there is a local connection, that helps to get round the problem. Further, 38 Brigade liaise with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to try to make sure that our people are fairly treated. I am going to call in the man in uniform here to see if he wants to add anything to that.

Rear-Admiral Williams: Every year between 150 and 200 or so leave the armed forces in Northern Ireland, so the numbers are not huge. The feedback from 38 Brigade and the normal places I would look for evidence of a real problem-the service families federations and service charities-do not seem to indicate the size of the problem you might expect, simply looking at the fact that we do not qualify for the points system and that there are differences. I cannot honestly come to you today and say I believe I have evidence of the problem you have had represented to you. I just do not have that evidence. The other evidence provided to me by Brigadier Rob Thomson of 38 Brigade is that many of the people leaving Northern Ireland have local connections and family. It does not seem to him to be as much of a problem as one might have expected.

Q71Oliver Colvile: First, thank you all, gentlemen, for coming, and thank you, Minister, for coming, too. Two things: do you get the impression that there is a difference between how the Armed Forces Covenant is being exercised in England, Wales and Scotland and what happens in Northern Ireland? If you do, can you tell us how you think we might overcome that?

Mr Francois: We all accept that there are some practical challenges to implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland. That said, we would like to see the Armed Forces Covenant operating effectively in Northern Ireland. We would like to see local authorities in Northern Ireland, where they want to, adopting a community covenant, but we do not feel that pressing for that from the centre in London would necessarily be the best way of persuading people to sign up. In terms of community covenant specifically, this is an example of localism in action. Local authorities around the country have been signing up to these Covenants because they think they are a positive thing. While we can provide encouragement from the centre, to push harder than that might be counter-productive. However, if asked whether we would we like local authorities in Northern Ireland to consider signing community covenants, we would, just as we would like them to consider signing community covenants in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Q72Oliver Colvile: I am delighted to say that my constituency, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, has been able to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant. In Plymouth, we launched our own new version on National Armed Forces Day last year. In your memorandum you say that, "Veterans and the ex-service community are clear net contributors to the community of Northern Ireland in its broadest sense." Can you explain to us what you meant by that?

Mr Francois: Armed forces personnel in general tend to be pretty capable people. The Queen has invested time and money in making them good at what they do. When they leave the service and become veterans they are often very employable. Over 90% of people who leave the services and go through what we call the Career Transition Partnership, which gives them training and settlement advice, get a job within about six months. Those figures are broadly reflected in Northern Ireland as well. Therefore, you have a very employable and capable group of people, and whenever they leave the services and settle, they tend to be an asset to the local community. A number of people who are not necessarily from Northern Ireland but settle there subsequently, having served there, also provide a valuable asset to the community in Northern Ireland, in much the same way as they would do wherever they settle in the UK. I do not know whether you want to add anything to that.

Rear-Admiral Williams: You have covered all the main points. Our experience is that that is exactly right. The investment that the armed forces put into their people means that they are good net contributors to society when they go back into it.

Oliver Colvile: I agree.

Q73Naomi Long: Thank you for coming and for giving us evidence today. The Armed Forces Covenant annual report in 2012 said that "the views of the Northern Ireland Executive have been sought but not obtained." Could you tell us what discussions there were between the MOD and the Northern Ireland Executive in the preparation of that report?

Mr Francois: We sought comments from all the devolved Administrations around the United Kingdom in preparing the first formal Armed Forces Covenant annual report. Specifically with regard to Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 19 June 2012 to invite contributions to the annual report. A Ministry of Defence official wrote to officials in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 17 December to inform them of the report’s publication. Unfortunately, we have not received a reply to either of these letters. There has not been further communication between the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Executive about the 2012 report per se, although 38 Brigade staff do engage routinely with individual Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive in the course of normal business. I hope that is a reasonably full reply.

Q74Naomi Long: So, no responses were received to either letter to confirm there would not be a submission, or was there no response at all?

Mr Francois: As far as I am genuinely aware, no, we have not had a response. I did not go down to the post room this morning and double-check but as far as I know we have not.

Q75Naomi Long: In terms of future annual reports, have there been any discussions subsequent to the publication of the 2012 report as to whether the Executive may or may not be in a position to submit evidence to future reports?

Mr Francois: We tried for the 2012 annual report along the lines I have described. Under the Armed Forces Act 2011, the Secretary of State now has a statutory duty to report to Parliament every year, effectively on the state of the Covenant. There will be an annual Armed Forces Covenant report in 2013, and so on. If possible, we would like the Northern Ireland Executive to contribute to the annual report in 2013, so in the run-up to that report, again, we will invite them to make a contribution, but clearly we cannot compel them to do so.

Q76Naomi Long: Have there been any discussions with them about how such a contribution may be able to be obtained, for example whether it needs to come from the corporate Executive or it can come from individual Ministers in the Executive reporting to the Secretary of State?

Mr Francois: If the Northern Ireland Executive wished to contribute to the report, exactly how they wished to contribute-which Minister, as it were, were to write-would be a matter for them. We have good working relationships with a number of Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive at working level and between 38 Brigade and those Departments. Therefore, we are able to address a lot of these issues day to day because of those good relationships, and we value that. In terms of the actual annual report, it would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide how they might want to reply or which Minister, as it were, might furnish a letter, if that was what they wanted to do.

Q77Naomi Long: In terms of the good relationships to which you have referred, one of our concerns is the lack of a representative of the Northern Ireland Executive on the Covenant Reference Group. Has any progress been made or have any discussions progressed with the Executive about trying to redress that?

Mr Francois: You have mentioned the Covenant Reference Group, and I will come back to that. We have the Armed Forces Covenant Committee, which is a cross-Government Committee, to try to implement the Armed Forces Covenant across the Departments of Government. The Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Mike Penning, sits on that Covenant Committee, so the NIO are well represented at that level. The last time we met a few weeks ago, Mike Penning was there and made an active contribution to the meeting. With regard to the Covenant Reference Group, as I understand it the NIO are not actively represented on it, but that is something we would encourage if they wanted to do that. Is there anything you want to add, Admiral?

Rear-Admiral Williams: The door is very firmly open, but this is something we would look to communities across the country to voluntarily commit to; we cannot compel.

Gavin Barlow: The NIO itself attends the Covenant Reference Group. It is the Executive that we would like to see there. There would be a place for them at the table.

Oliver Colvile: I am sorry to press you a bit on this.

Mr Francois: I am told that is how this sort of thing works.

Q78Oliver Colvile: Have you had any conversation with the Northern Ireland Executive as to why they have not submitted anything at all? Do you get the feeling there is any kind of blockage internally in the Executive? I am just trying to tease out from you any ideas as to why they may not have wanted to participate.

Mr Francois: The literal answer to your direct question as to whether I have had discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on this matter is no.

Q79Oliver Colvile: Have the Department?

Mr Francois: We have ongoing discussions with the NIE at their departmental level with the MOD; we do that all the time, primarily through 38 Brigade. With regard to corporate discussions with the NIE on this, that has been done mainly by the Northern Ireland Office rather than by us per se.

Q80Ian Paisley: For the record, I think it is a scandal that you have not had a reply. I do not think there is anything else that can be said.

Mr Francois: I am responsible for a number of things, but I am not responsible for the correspondence of others.

Ian Paisley: No, absolutely. It is a scandal.

Q81Dr McDonnell: Thank you for your evidence so far. In your written evidence, the MOD highlighted the work of the UDR and Royal Irish Regiment Aftercare Service. Which of the areas covered by the Covenant does that Aftercare Service not address? Can you tell us if there are any similar services for other specific regiments elsewhere in the UK?

Mr Francois: Because of the nature of conditions in Northern Ireland, the Aftercare Service is a bespoke service that currently covers about 63,000 veterans from the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment. It has been designed with the situation in Northern Ireland specifically in mind, so in some respects it is rather unique. Perhaps I can ask the Admiral to say a bit more about how it works in practice.

Rear-Admiral Williams: In practice, as the Minister said, it was set up for a specific need. There is a benevolence element to it and there is some physiotherapy and psychotherapy associated with it. None of that would be outside the community support one might expect from the Covenant, but equally the Covenant is rather broader in terms of what it invites the community to do in supporting our people. We see it very much as a proper response to the needs of the people who use it but not necessarily something that we would roll out right the way across the country. There is what you might call a tolerable variation of what we put in place across the country to deal with the needs of our servicemen.

Q82Dr McDonnell: If I may paraphrase, you are saying that the Aftercare Service which is there is on a par with, or within a degree of latitude nearly as good as, the Covenant.

Rear-Admiral Williams: My word. I am sorry; I am probably misleading. I am saying that in doing what it does it is probably providing some bits that are not provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and therefore could be considered better than that which would be provided elsewhere in the community.

Q83Dr McDonnell: You have given us the number 63,000. The largest veteran community in Northern Ireland is that of the Royal Irish and the UDR. Do you have an estimate of how much of the ex-service or armed forces community in Northern Ireland is served by that? Is it 70% or 80%? What I am trying to get at is who is left out of that service.

Mr Francois: Generally, across the UK, around one in 10 adults is a veteran. If you go right back to the second world war and work through to Korea, the Cold War and operations in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, around one in 10 adults will have served in either the regular or reserve forces.

Q84Dr McDonnell: Is that male or all adults?

Mr Francois: My understanding is that that is all adults. We believe that that proportion is broadly similar in Northern Ireland. We do not literally have a precise record, but we think it is broadly about one in 10 across the population, so one in 10 of the population of Northern Ireland is likely to be a veteran. Within that, we have a hard number of about 63,000 for those who served in the Royal Irish Regiment or the UDR.

Q85Dr McDonnell: Are you telling me that the veteran community might be 100,000?

Mr Francois: It could even be a bit bigger than that.

Dr McDonnell: So there is a significant section left out.

Rear-Admiral Williams: Service charities have estimated it at 150,000 people. That would be quite reasonable for the number of people in Northern Ireland, and that community has access to the wider support that we have for those communities. I have got veteran welfare officers in Northern Ireland dealing with those at about the ratio you would see elsewhere.

Q86Dr McDonnell: What would prevent the Aftercare Service from being opened up to the rest of those people?

Mr Francois: At the moment, the Ministry of Defence has the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and that caters for all veterans from the armed forces wherever they may be in the United Kingdom. That will look after veterans in Northern Ireland just as it will look after veterans living in England or elsewhere. It would not be right to say there is no support for those people; they are still under, as it were, the aegis of the SPVA from the MOD viewpoint, and they can also receive support from service charities and other third-sector groups. It would not be right to say that if you are a veteran in Northern Ireland and you are not covered by the Aftercare Service you have no support. That would be inaccurate, because the SPVA helps to cover you anyway, and in certain circumstances so do the charities as well.

Q87Dr McDonnell: I accept and am fully aware that it might be inaccurate to say they are not covered, but how badly are they not covered, or what are they missing out on? The previous question was: could the special Aftercare Service be extended? They are missing out on something. We got very positive evidence from Colonel Johnny Rollins. He was certainly very positive, proactive and informative, and I have been turning it over since. What struck me as being ideal was to take the service that is working for the UDR and RIR and extend it.

Mr Francois: The Admiral will want to comment, but the Northern Ireland Aftercare Service is very much a bespoke one for those who served in the Royal Irish Regiment and UDR, based on the fact that, as the Committee will understand, some of those people do not want outwardly to identify themselves as veterans, partly depending on which community they are living in in Northern Ireland. We all understand the practical reality of it. We have a very bespoke service that attempts to cater for that. I am not sure that all veterans living in Northern Ireland will necessarily have the same sensitivities. If you had served in world war two in Northern Ireland, you might not be so concerned about declaring yourself as a veteran as you perhaps would be if you had served in the UDR. We have a very specific bespoke service that tries to take account of that.

That said, it is the MOD that funds the Aftercare Service. We are very proud of that service. As the Admiral says, it is there for a very specific purpose, but it is very good at what it does. We are proud of that bit of it, but we also think that other veterans get a pretty good service from other bits of the MOD and other bits of the third sector as well.

Rear-Admiral Williams: To answer your question fully, it is probably worth going into it in a little more depth. The general welfare support that the service provides is provided for others in different ways. Part of the 150,000 will be second world war and Korean war veterans. They are back in society and getting welfare support in Northern Ireland in exactly the same way as any other civilian. They do not need the valueadd and the extra. They have got a veterans welfare service and the support of the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, but they are getting support in other ways.

If we go to the "benevolence" part of this, it is pretty much a regimental piece. They would not want to take the benevolence part as part of the UDR and Royal Irish Home Service part; they would do it as part of their own host or home regiment. That is pretty much the way they would do it.

If I run my finger down all the things that could be provided if we put this more broadly across veterans in Northern Ireland and indeed nationally, we are covering it in other ways. Why keep this service for that particular section of the veterans in Northern Ireland? That comes back to the Minister’s first point. We designed this specifically for their needs. Given the particular nature and numbers of people involved at a particular stage, they need something like this as somewhere to go that provides a helpful and welcoming ear, which knows what they did in their particular type of service, which would be very different from many types of service of the other veterans in Northern Ireland.

Mr Francois: At the risk of betraying advice to Ministers, when people have come to look at value for money that the Aftercare Service has provided, Ministers have always been robust in saying that it provides very good value for money.

Q88Dr McDonnell: That is exactly the point I am trying to get at. Because of security implications and other things, I would rather use the wheel we have than try to reinvent the wheel, because a system that fits here may not fit very well there. My view would be that perhaps that Aftercare Service should be expanded.

Mr Francois: I see the point you are making, Dr McDonnell. We would argue that at the moment that Aftercare Service is focused, as it were, where the need is greatest. As the Admiral has said, we have tried to design something which is bespoke and provides important support to a particular group of veterans. That is how it sits at the moment, but we are proud of it. Others may think that we should do more, and if that is their belief they will probably let us know.

Oliver Colvile: Minister, I am a Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Armed Forces.

Mr Francois: I am aware of that.

Q89Oliver Colvile: I have special responsibility for the Royal Marines, so I am always interested in making sure we look after not only the senior service, if I might say so, in all of this. There are two questions I suppose I want to ask you. There are veterans living in Southern Ireland and not Northern Ireland. Are you saying that, as a Department, you have no relationship with those veterans who have served in our armed services? The second question, which I am keenly interested in, is how we can help those veterans through mental health problems, which is a very big issue, if they are not living within the confines of the United Kingdom.

Mr Francois: I will ask the Admiral to come in specifically on mental health. SPVA does cater for veterans living in Southern Ireland; they can still contact the SPVA and get assistance as veterans who served in the United Kingdom armed forces. With regard specifically to mental health, this is something we take quite seriously. To give you one example, a few years ago we had a lacuna where reservists coming back from service in Afghanistan did not get the same mental health briefings, as it were, during decompression as regular soldiers. We have changed that so they get the same kind of decompression package and mental health briefings when coming back from theatre that regular soldiers would get. I have been to King’s College London, my old alma mater where I did my masters, which has a specialist unit at the Centre for Military Health Research led now by Professor Sir Simon Wessely. They have done a great deal of research into mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder. They help to advise us and the Ministry of Defence on how to address these issues.

A further example we have been rolling out with the Veterans Welfare Service is that we now contact people at a particular point after they have left the services to check that they are all right, offer them support and see if they feel they need any further health care advice, including on mental health. We have begun to roll that out recently, and we are looking possibly to extend that and contact people on a more frequent basis if the initial feedback from that is positive, which I think it has been.

Rear-Admiral Williams: We are trying to use any lever we can to get to people. The web is one opportunity. I do not know whether you are aware of the Big White Wall, which we have contributed to. People feel well disposed towards using it, and I can quite easily see why that is.

Mr Francois: Do you want to explain what that is?

Rear-Admiral Williams: It is a website you can access and express your views on. By making the right kind of clicks you get support and advice. People seem to use it as a sort of safety valve. We have contributed to it, working with our charitable partners and Combat Stress, who have put a massive amount of work into this. We have a formal partnership with Combat Stress looking at ex-servicemen and trying to work with Simon Wessely, among others, to get underneath what it is we can do. In terms of our global coverage, I suspect that the web is as good an opportunity as anything to join people together and have a shared understanding of where they have been.

Mr Francois: The great thing about the Big White Wall is that you can, if you want to, go on it anonymously. You can say, "I served in a unit in Afghanistan a few years ago and I am now having some issues and am struggling with it a bit. Can anybody give me some advice?" You do not have to declare your identity in doing that. Some people are much more comfortable talking about it anonymously on the wall, and they get a lot of support. Other people can come up and say, "I’ve had a similar experience", or whatever. The take-up of that has quite positive, hasn’t it?

Rear-Admiral Williams: Yes, it has.

Q90Kate Hoey: Can I add my support to Mr Paisley’s point? For the record, there is no excuse for bad manners. I am amazed that your Department did not chase this up when it got no response from the Executive. It is quite, quite shocking. It is bad enough when we do not get responses from Ministers, but when Departments write to Governments in other parts of the United Kingdom, it is pretty shocking. If I may probe the relationship with the Northern Ireland Executive a little further, you seem to say that there were fairly good relations between parts of the armed forces and the Executive’s Departments, but from our evidence, the only Department with which there seems to be any kind of liaison and work is the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Do you understand what measures the Departments are putting in place to prevent disadvantage to members of the armed forces community in Northern Ireland across public services, even if they are not formally engaged in discussions?

Mr Francois: With regard to health care, 38 Brigade has had quite good links with the devolved health care service in Northern Ireland for a number of years. There are protocols in place that make sure that, for instance, our service personnel have good access to secondary health care in Northern Ireland. At a practical level that works quite well. On issues such as prosthetics, for instance, you may be aware that recently the Government announced £6.5 million from the special reserve to provide the most advanced generation of prosthetics for service personnel wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. I have had a bit to do with that and I feel quite passionate about that, if I may say so. Where those personnel are still in service, they will be fitted with that new generation of advanced prosthetics. I am proud to say that the first should take place in the next few weeks. They will be fitted at Headley Court. Where personnel have left the service-about 40 have left the service and are now officially veterans-and live in England, they will be fitted through a number of Murrison centres, as they are called, following the report of my colleague Dr Andy Murrison. We will use the skills at Headley Court to help grow that capability in those Murrison centres in England. The Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations are looking at how they can come up with a similar capability in their nations. I believe that in Northern Ireland similar work is underway to try to find a way to do this there, possibly at Musgrave Park Hospital. The Admiral can give you the most up-to-date information on this because he was at a meeting on this precise point very recently.

Rear-Admiral Williams: Only yesterday, there was a Northern Ireland representative at the partnership board between the NHS trusts in England and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved Administrations to be properly represented on our policy board, effectively looking at how servicemen’s health issues relate to society.

Q91Kate Hoey: With respect, we know there is cooperation on health, but what about all the other areas?

Rear-Admiral Williams: In 38 Brigade the children’s education support officer has a regular link with the education library boards. On the social development side, garrison support units talk regularly with the Department for Social Development. What you see is a network of 38 Brigade, which is the firm base, linking to all parts of Government, as is required at a low level. If the question is about the Covenant working at a grassroots brigade commander and soldier level, it does appear to be working pretty well. The information I have is that, at local level on all these individual lines, it seems to be working pretty well.

Mr Francois: I am sorry to delay you, Miss Hoey, but Gavin wants to add a bit to the education piece.

Gavin Barlow: Although the contacts are primarily between 38 Brigade and Departments, there are also contacts at official level with Departments in the Executive, and there are things that Departments in the Executive have already done, which are fully in support of the Covenant. For example, the pupil premium for children of service parents is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That is a discretionary measure and was a decision taken by the relevant Department in Northern Ireland.

The Minister has already mentioned that we have been holding discussions with the Education Department in Northern Ireland about replication of the arrangements for support for further and higher education. They look promising at the moment, so there are other things going on. Equally, when it comes to work on the new armed forces independence payment, for example, we will be making arrangements with the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland to ensure we can pass legislation to replicate the provisions of that legislation in Northern Ireland. At a practical level, there is a good deal of work and many provisions of the Covenant are being implemented.

Q92Kate Hoey: Would I be right in saying that part of your reason, Minister, when you talk about optimism and things being pretty good is because, even though for certain political reasons certain politicians and Ministers are not prepared to say that they would even dream of talking about the Covenant, what is going on is happening despite or perhaps because of their common sense?

Mr Francois: I am visiting Northern Ireland next month and I will be discussing this personally with the Commander of 38 Brigade. I am going out there to see some of these things for myself.

Kate Hoey: I think you say "over".

Mr Francois: Forgive me. I will be going over to see some of these things for myself. I also hope to visit some of our units in Northern Ireland while I am there. You characterised it as whether it works day to day at working level. I believe that it does, and that is very much the advice we get from 38 Brigade. We have these good working relationships not just in health care but in other Departments, as I hope we have explained to you, and we have managed to address at a practical level a number of these issues day to day. We believe those relationships are good. We are not complacent. Is there more we could do? There probably is, but are we doing reasonably well? We probably are. That is not to be complacent in any way, but that is partly because our people in Northern Ireland have worked hard at this, and it would be right to commend them for the effort they have made. The Admiral might want to add something to that.

Rear-Admiral Williams: I think you have accurately reflected what we are doing there.

Q93Lady Hermon: Admiral, I think you will get an opportunity to respond to my question. Both the Minister and the Admiral have referred the Committee to the very good grassroots work being done to honour our ex-services personnel in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I could have a response from both of you to my question. You do not have to be unanimous. Following on from the question from my colleague Kate Hoey, the honourable Member for Vauxhall, we acknowledge the good work that is being done at grassroots level, but is it an adequate and acceptable substitute for engagement by the Northern Ireland Executive? For an Executive in a devolved Administration within the United Kingdom, is it an acceptable alternative?

Mr Francois: If the Northern Ireland Executive at a more corporate level wish to engage with us more closely on some of these issues, we would welcome that. In terms of day-to-day relations on behalf of the UK Government with the Northern Ireland Executive, of course the Northern Ireland Office is the lead, but if they wanted to engage with us more closely at the corporate level, we would welcome that. In lieu of that, we have concentrated on establishing good working relationships at an NIE departmental level, as it were, and we believe that works quite well.

Q94Lady Hermon: May I address my supplementary to the Admiral? In the useful evidence provided to the Committee in the written memorandum from the MOD it says, "It is important that gaps in provision are closed, but it is equally important to ensure that the work does not become counter-productive." Could that be translated for the benefit of the Committee? In what sense do you mean "counter-productive"?

Rear-Admiral Williams: Wherever we look for the Armed Forces Covenant to be upheld-as a serviceman I have seen a massive change in the way our country generally appreciates the work that has been done-we are looking for a pragmatic local manifestation of that which we seek in the Covenant. We can see in Northern Ireland the very obvious sensitivities given the historical background. We can see that certain things which would be easy to say publicly here in the United Kingdom may be less easy in certain areas in Northern Ireland. I am not after everything; I am just looking for proper and even treatment of service personnel. What I am getting back at the grassroots level, therefore, is not worrying me about the way our servicemen are being treated in Northern Ireland. In all sorts of ways they are treated extremely well; they get an awful lot of local respect. Equally, I cannot take a Westminster-centric view of the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland; I am after a pragmatic roll-out. What I see is the positive message that we have given you this afternoon.

Mr Francois: I made the point that we are not seeking to be complacent, and that applies to our colleagues in the NIO as well. Perhaps I can amplify that. There was an Opposition Day debate on the Armed Forces Covenant in November 2012, which highlighted some of these issues. The Prime Minister has taken an interest in this. He had a meeting at No. 10 in January, at which Mike Penning from the NIO was also present, to look at some of these issues. That meeting resulted in two actions: first, that we should try to establish a clear understanding of where there may be any shortfall in Covenant provision for service personnel in Northern Ireland, i.e. not being complacent; and, second, the option should then be developed to fill any gaps in provision that are identified. Work to understand any gaps that might exist in Northern Ireland was initially taken forward through a meeting hosted by the Minister of State for Northern Ireland at Stormont on 22 January. This brought together representatives from a range of service charities that operate in Northern Ireland. From memory, we did reference that meeting in our written evidence to the Committee.

As a result of that meeting, it was decided that commander 38 Brigade would establish a working level forum to identify what support is provided, where there may be any gaps in provision and whether there are any possible overlaps in provision as well. The first such meeting of the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum took place on 5 February-I do not think that was referred to in the memorandum-and brought together a wide range of representatives from service charities operating in Northern Ireland. One of the first agreed actions from that meeting was to produce written information about the different kinds of support that organisations provide in order to build common understanding. In other words, following meetings from No. 10 downwards, we are trying now formally to map out exactly what provision there is-we already have a good idea-and then see if there are any gaps. If we do find any genuine gaps, we need to come up with a mechanism to address them. I hope none of that smacks of complacency.

Lady Hermon: No; it is very reassuring. Thank you for that detail.

Q95Mr Benton: Welcome, Minister. I am sorry if it appears that I am going over old ground again, but I would like to make a few observations. As a UK citizen, I cannot work out logically how any form of veteran or ex-serviceman can be treated in differential terms. Based on the evidence we have received so far, this is the case. Veterans from Northern Ireland in particular seem to be penalised. That is based on the evidence we have received. The thrust of my concerns, which I believe is the broad concern of the Committee in general, is the inequity of this for veterans from Northern Ireland.

I do understand some of the responses you have made about being sensitive to devolved powers and so on, but I want to pose a number of questions. As a UK citizen, I regard myself as being under the UK Government, shall we say. Perhaps a question is to be answered as to why this particular problem comes under devolved powers when clearly there should be uniform treatment across the whole of the UK. I do understand the sensitivities about devolved power, but I want to point out to the Government or the defence Department the pressure they can bring to bear-perhaps "highlight" is the wrong word-on the Northern Ireland Executive and say, "Look, you have got to find solutions to this and bring it about." Following that line of reasoning, it is incumbent then on the UK Government to suggest that there are certain things they can learn from the devolved powers in Wales and Scotland to try to arrive at uniform treatment. That is my concern, which is shared generally by this Committee. For the life of me, devolved powers or not, I cannot see any justification for people who have fought for their country and who have made huge sacrifices-and their families-no matter what the reason, being the subject of differential treatment across any part of the UK.

Mr Francois: I can understand your sentiment. Devolved power is a fact of life in the United Kingdom now. We have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly; it does not look as if any of that is likely to change. There are some things that the Ministry of Defence does across the United Kingdom. We are the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence; we are responsible for the defence of the realm across the UK, including Northern Ireland, which is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom. To take one example, we have a new thing called the armed forces independence payment-AFIP-which is a special variant of PIP for severely wounded servicemen. We will administer that via the DWP across the United Kingdom-in a sense, that is not devolved. But there are services, such as healthcare, which are devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Housing is devolved in different ways at different tiers in those countries. Those sorts of provisions for ex-service personnel and veterans have to be a matter for those devolved Administrations and, in some cases, for local government depending on which country. They all do it slightly differently. Some of the services to support servicemen and veterans are provided at local ground level. You would not expect the Ministry of Defence to run those things directly, so there will be an element of local discretion, and that is partly what devolution is about.

Q96Mr Benton: I am sorry if I failed to outline it correctly. I appreciate what you have just said, but, coming back to the conclusion of my series of questions, I put it to you again. You mentioned dialogue with the Northern Ireland Executive. As the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, is there anything you can recognise in terms of the devolved powers in Scotland and Wales that could be helpful contributors to bring about a more positive reaction from the Northern Ireland Executive? I share the consternation of my colleagues that there has been a failure to respond to your request. From the experience of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish devolved powers, are there any areas you could usefully glean?

Mr Francois: I see what you are driving at. It is not for me to dictate to the Northern Ireland Executive. I am not trying to hide behind anything, but day to day they have most interaction with the Northern Ireland Office, for obvious reasons. I hope we have established to your satisfaction this afternoon that there are good working relationships with individual Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Kate Hoey: For health we definitely have.

Mr Francois: We have tried to give you some other examples beyond simply health care. You asked me to draw a parallel with the other devolved Administrations. I can give you one example. With those other two devolved Administrations, there is someone appointed specifically to have responsibility for veterans’ affairs. In the Scottish Government, it is Keith Brown MSP, an ex-marine; in the Welsh Government, it is Carl Sargeant. I have met Mr Brown and I am due to meet Carl Sargeant very shortly. At the moment, there is no equivalent from the Northern Ireland Executive; there is no one person who is given responsibility for those issues. It is up to them to decide whether they want to appoint someone to that post, but the other devolved Administrations have decided to do so and, from the MoD point of view, that makes liaison slightly easier, but again that would be a matter for the Executive.

Q97Chair: On the coordination of all of this, Oliver Letwin has some responsibilities in that respect. Could you very briefly outline what those would be? There are so many aspects to this in terms of health, education and housing but, added to that, there are devolved Administrations which it make it even more complicated. What role would Mr Letwin play?

Mr Francois: I mentioned earlier the Armed Forces Covenant Committee which is cross-government from a UK Government perspective. A number of Departments are represented on that Committee, and Oliver Letwin as the Minister for Government Policy chairs it and reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Q98Naomi Long: Did you say "APIP", which is like the personal independence payment?

Mr Francois: It is AFIP: armed forces independence payment.

Q99Naomi Long: You said that DWP would be administering that direct from the UK, but DWP does not administer the benefits system in Northern Ireland; it is administered by the Department for Social Development. In theory, it is a devolved issue, in that the Executive and Assembly could, if they chose, break parity and do their own thing. They could not afford to-and the financial reality is that they do not-but they could. In this case, will this be administered differently, or will it still be subject to Assembly scrutiny, for example, in terms of how it is distributed, the levels at which it is distributed and so on? I am trying to explore that, because obviously with other benefits, the Welfare Reform Bill and so on that went through here then had to be passed separately in the Assemblies as a piece of legislation before it could be implemented there, even though in reality the finances were going to dictate that it had to be.

Mr Francois: My understanding is that AFIP will apply equally across the United Kingdom, but if there are any nuances there I will take advice.

Gavin Barlow: AFIP itself, while it is being administered in mainland UK by the DWP is being implemented through our own MoD legislation, linked to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. Effectively, we will deliver the same approach in Northern Ireland through primary and secondary legislation, which will apply through the Northern Ireland system. My understanding is that it would not be subject to scrutiny.

Q100Naomi Long: It would not be subject to scrutiny at the Assembly?

Gavin Barlow: I do not think it would be, no.

Naomi Long: It would not be, okay. I just wanted to clarify that. Thank you.

Q101Mr Anderson: Yes. A lot of the debate that has been going on has been about the bureaucracy of how the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland report mechanisms are different. Are any practical things being done in Scotland and Wales that could be done equally as well and possibly even better in Northern Ireland? For example, because of their reporting mechanisms, Scotland and Wales are getting this particular programme, but we are not getting this from Northern Ireland, that we could say "why do you not try doing x?"

Mark Francois: As I say, I think with the Aftercare Service in Northern Ireland, you have something in Northern Ireland that they do not have in Scotland and they do not have in Wales. So, at the risk of being slightly cheeky, Mr Anderson-

Mr Anderson: As if.

Mark Francois: Yes, how very unlike me. You could almost reverse the question. Provision is not precisely the same in all three nations, partly because they are devolved. I am going to ask Mr Barlow if he could give some examples of where there are lessons in Scotland or Wales that might be transferable to Northern Ireland.

Gavin Barlow: Sorry Minister, in terms of lessons of-?

Mark Francois: In other words, the things that they do in Scotland or Wales that we do not currently do in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Barlow: We have some areas of difficulty in Scotland and Wales where the provision is not the same. In general, though, the Scottish Executive has taken a much more proactive political role in trying to keep pace with developments in England and Wales. It is that kind of leadership that has made a significant difference for us there. I cannot think of an obvious parallel where I could think of the detailed administrative level I would want to do something specific in Northern Ireland, taking account of the Scottish experience.

Q102Nigel Mills: I guess we are where we are with the Executive, but we have had a few suggestions of the things that may help take things forward in a slightly different way. Perhaps I could just put some of them to you and see what your reaction is. The first one was establishing an ex-services forum to improve coordination between the various regimental associations and the charities. I think you mentioned some kind of forum a few questions back, I am not totally sure.

Mark Francois: There is now a Northern Ireland Veterans Forum and their meeting took place on 5 February.

Q103Nigel Mills: So that now exists. There has been some suggestion that perhaps the MoD doing a full assessment of the health and housing needs of the armed forces community in Northern Ireland might be a helpful way of understanding the situation and taking things forward.

Mark Francois: In effect, that is what the Veterans Forum is attempting to do. As I say, the intention in principle is to map out precisely what provision is currently available, taking input and opinions from the service charities as well, and then following on from that mapping process to see if there are any genuine gaps in provision. If all parties can reasonably agree that there is a genuine gap in provision somewhere, we need to come up with a strategy for how to address it. In fairness, what the Committee is suggesting is already underway.

Q104Nigel Mills: I think there was some suggestion that the Veterans First Point service in Edinburgh had been quite successful and whether that could be replicated in Northern Ireland?

Mark Francois: I think the answer to that is "possibly". Admiral?

Rear-Admiral Williams: Interestingly, a similar question came up when we talked to the Welsh Affairs Committee. To speak also to Mr Anderson’s point of how we can share best practice, that is one of those things that we see as working particularly well and is certainly offered up as best practice and a model that one might wish to adopt. Up and down the country, various authorities are looking at that and seeing whether it is applicable to them. What we are saying is that we can be a community of best practice but we are not really in a position-certainly with the devolved authorities-to mandate, "You will do this and you will do that." That would be quite odd given what we are trying to do in the devolved authorities. So yes, certainly it would be something which would be worth looking at. It works very well in Edinburgh and we are looking at it in other parts of the country.

Mark Francois: It is important to point out that the funding for establishing and sustaining that was provided by the Scottish Government in co-operation with NHS Lothian. That is not something that is directly funded by the MoD in the way that we fund the Aftercare Service, but it is something that I think we feel has been successful up in Scotland when they tried it. It may be something that others around the UK want to look at.

Q105Kate Hoey: We have had some interesting evidence on Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. The Government is taking the position that the Belfast Agreement never ever should be interfered with; are you quite confident that Section 75 still staying there is not a barrier to any of the things that we want to see, particularly the fact that all armed forces personnel-wherever they are living in the United Kingdom-should be treated equally?

Mark Francois: The Government regards Section 75 as a key part of implementing the Good Friday Agreement. We are not intending to seek to amend that. However, in that it essentially argues for equality of treatment, it is worth remembering that the two key principles of the Armed Forces Covenant include firstly the principle of no discrimination against members of the armed forces family, and by that we mean serving members of the armed forces, their families and veterans. In that Section 75 is a piece of equalities legislation and that the first key principle of the Covenant is no discrimination, we do not necessarily see any opposition between those.

Where it gets slightly more complicated is with regard to the second key principle of the Armed Forces Covenant, which is the principle of special treatment where appropriate, especially for the wounded or bereaved. That does therefore call for special treatment, but where it is appropriate. For instance, we were talking earlier about the provision of prosthetics in Northern Ireland for those people who have been wounded in the service of their country and how we are seeking to take that forward. I am sorry to give another health care example, Miss Hoey, but I do believe it is pertinent in this case. We have come up with funding to provide advanced prosthetics for veterans, which I think most people would welcome, but I also understand in Northern Ireland that the devolved Administration wants to try and provide advanced prosthetics for members of the civilian population as well. We believe there that our veterans are going to get the most modern prosthetics, but it may also be that members of the public will get access to those too.

You can then have a debate about whether that constitutes special treatment or not, but I do not think Section 75 and the Armed Forces Covenant are necessarily directly at variance, not least because in the second key principle there is the point about special treatment where appropriate.

Q106Kate Hoey: But surely the underlying basic principle should be that the Military Covenant should apply right across the United Kingdom and therefore anything that prevents it from being fully implemented has to be looked at by this Parliament?

Mark Francois: This Parliament is looking at it right now via this Committee.

Q107Kate Hoey: How would you feel if we came up with something that said we thought that Section 75 should be changed?

Mark Francois: It is not for me to mandate to this Committee what to write in any report that they may produce, but I would make plain that I do not think the Government is proposing to repeal or amend Section 75 because it is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement in legislative terms. However, where there are, shall we say, practical difficulties because of that, we have sought to try to find practical ways of still delivering support to the armed forces community via the Armed Forces Covenant, at a working level that still assesses their needs and delivers the spirit of the Covenant. These relationships that we have been talking about this afternoon help us to do that.

Coming right back to my opening comments, in terms of delivering the Covenant at ground level, is this working quite well? Yes, I believe it is, so I believe in practical terms we are still managing to achieve the objective if you like, despite the presence of Section 75. However, as I say, I will be going across-or going over-next month in order to try to see the operation of some of this for myself. I am not just reading from any briefing I may have had; I am going to go and see it and touch it.

Q108Kate Hoey: Will you be meeting the veterans?

Mark Francois: I have not yet formalised the programme.

Kate Hoey: I think you should.

Mark Francois: I need to finalise that; we will have to see if it is possible to do that as well.

Q109Mr Anderson: Have you taken any specific legal advice on whether Section 75 is a barrier to implementing the Covenant?

Gavin Barlow: Yes, we have. Without going into detail, what the legal advice essentially says is that for most of the Covenant provisions-which, as the Minister says, do talk about dealing with disadvantage-it is essentially in exactly the same space as the Covenant and it does not create a barrier to the sorts of things that we are trying to do. That has been demonstrated by a number of measures that have already been taken in Northern Ireland. When it comes to special treatment, it is possible for there to be barriers through interpretation of Section 75, but it is not necessarily going to be the case. It will come down to the specifics of what the measure that you want to implement actually is and the judgement of the Department in the Northern Ireland Executive looking at the implications for Section 75. Under that piece of legislation, they are obliged to make those judgements, just as they would be for other aspects of Government’s activity in Northern Ireland. It is clearly an area that needs to be addressed on a casebycase basis, as we are doing with the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland, but the legal advice we have does not suggest that it is an absolute barrier to the Covenant in any way.

Q110Mr Anderson: Can we access that legal advice?

Gavin Barlow: "No" would be the short answer to that, because legal advice is privileged.

Q111Mr Anderson: Does the Northern Ireland Executive have access to this legal advice?

Gavin Barlow: I am sure they have their own legal advice. They will not have mine.

Q112Mr Anderson: It is just that we know that people are saying, "We cannot do this because of Section 75", yet if you look at things like-correct me if I am wrong here-we allow policemen, fire fighters, mental health nurses and other workers in Northern Ireland to retire differently from other people over there; the same as we do in this part of the world because it recognises the jobs they have done. This is in no way being disrespectful to what the forces are doing, but, in some ways, we are asking for the Covenant to apply because of the job they have done. I just think if we can do anything that removes the potential for people to say, "We would like to do this but we cannot because of Section 75", it is certainly going to give us, and the people there who want to do this, some support.

Mark Francois: Within the MoD we understand the spirit of what you are getting at, but I think we have in fairness this afternoon given you a whole range of practical examples of where we are delivering support to the armed forces community in Northern Ireland along with what one might call the spirit of the Armed Forces Covenant every day. It would not be right to say that Section 75 is stopping us implementing the Armed Forces Covenant because we have given you a whole range of examples.

Q113Mr Anderson: Except some people are saying that, Minister. Some people have come here and told us that.

Mark Francois: Can it be a complicating factor? Yes, in certain circumstances I think it can be. Is it, however, stopping us doing these things that are working at a practical level day to day? By and large it is not. In fairness, Mr Chairman, we have given the Committee a whole range of examples this afternoon where we are actually honouring the spirit of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland by working these issues through at a practical working level.

Q114Naomi Long: Would it be fair to summarise what you have said as effectively that where there is a will there is a way? That if people are willing, in their Departments, to make the Armed Forces Covenant work, it is possible to do it with Section 75 in place? If they are not willing, then Section 75 may be a good excuse not to; is that a reasonable summary?

Mark Francois: I saw the Admiral nodding actively at that point.

Q115Naomi Long: I will take that as a coded yes. In your evidence you also referred to Section 75. You said there was, "a perception by some that the legislation is acting as a barrier to the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland being implemented on the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom, however it also ensures that the Armed Forces Community is not disadvantaged when it comes to the provision of public services." Section 75 does not actually make any reference to people’s employment, either current or prior, or military service. Therefore, in what way do you believe it protects the armed forces community in relation to the provision of public services?

Mark Francois: I would say in simple terms, because the first key principle of the Armed Forces Covenant is the principle of no disadvantage as a result of having served in the armed forces. Because part of the spirit of Section 75, as I understand it, is of not having disadvantage between one community or another in Northern Ireland, then in a sense it is somewhat in tune with the first key principle of the Armed Forces Covenant. They do not seem really to be at variance in any way and as that first key principle is an important part of the Covenant, in a sense you could argue that to some degree Section 75 complements it rather than being in conflict with it.

Q116David Simpson: Very quickly, we will get on to the thornier issue now. You recently gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. In that Committee you had said that there was "a particular challenge to Northern Ireland because of some of the Sinn Feinrun authorities." Let us call a spade a spade: the bottom line is, is this the real problem here?

Mark Francois: Mr Simpson, as I am already on the record as having given evidence to one Select Committee on this matter and been quoted, I am hardly likely to turn up this afternoon and change my testimony. In essence I have already given an opinion on that.

David Simpson: Okay, thank you. That is a yes.

Q117Mr Benton: Since this inquiry has commenced Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has had meetings with various charitable organisations, different local parties and so on and so forth. In terms of your Department, do you coordinate in any way with the Secretary of State? Is there any mutual dialogue taking place?

Mark Francois: The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?

Q118Mr Benton: Yes. Is it reasonable to suggest that there might be some benefits in a dialogue or a coordinated approach?

Mark Francois: Secretaries of State talk to each other on a frequent basis. At working level-at my rank as it were-I have very close working relationships with Mike Penning, the Minister of State at the NIO, who, as I say, understands well the practical realities of all this and who I think from some of the meetings that I was updating the Committee on has been working hard to try and overcome any practical obstacles with regard to all this. It is fair to say that there is quite a lot of liaison between Mr Penning and myself at working ministerial level within the MoD, which is not to say that the Secretaries of State do not work together.

Q119Mr Benton: In the light of previous responses, would it be fair to describe that a coordinated approach to this problem between your Department and the Northern Ireland Office could be better?

Mark Francois: As I hope the Committee will acknowledge, I have not attempted to come here this afternoon with any sense of complacency. I hope we have not in any way between us conveyed that impression.

Q120Mr Benton: Minister, sorry again, I think you are misinterpreting me. On the basis of an earlier response, such as no response to your approach-this is not a criticism of the MoD; all I am trying to get at is that the more I listen to evidence on this and the more I hear responses, and thank you for yours today, they have been very helpful, it seems to me that a dialogue between various parties and bodies could be improved in terms of trying to achieve a more concerted approach to the problem. The purpose of my question is to ask, if you are not getting the proper coordination with the NIO, what do you think can happen to improve that, or what can bring it about?

Mark Francois: I think we have very good relationships with the NIO in actual fact. As I say, Mike Penning and I have tried to work quite closely together on it. In terms of daytoday relationships with the political parties of Northern Ireland, NIO are clearly in the lead on that. I believe you are taking evidence from Mr Penning in a few weeks’ time, Mr Chairman. I will certainly debrief Mike Penning on my trip to Northern Ireland and whatever perceptions I have gained as a result of that. He will then be in a position to update this Committee directly on discussions that he has had with various political parties in Northern Ireland in order to try and address this issue as well. Mike is in the lead on that and, in fairness to him, I do not want to attempt to pre-empt his evidence to the Committee. I will debrief him on my impressions following my visit and then Mike will be giving evidence to you in a few weeks’ time. We work very closely with the NIO on this.

Chair: We do not have a formal meeting with Mike Penning yet; we thought we would see how we did with you first, Minister.

Mark Francois: Chairman, you are very kind.

Chair: I will come to Alasdair. We are going to have to speed up a little bit.

Q121Dr McDonnell: Very quickly, and I will speed up, Chairman, if I can. We have alluded to this, we have touched on it indirectly, but could you give us some outline of what financial support the MoD provides to organisations and services like the Aftercare Service that support the armed forces community of Northern Ireland? How is this comparable with Wales and Scotland? Are there deficiencies or defects there if you look at the overall finance per head or whatever way you want to?

Mark Francois: Well, you mentioned the Aftercare Service specifically; we fund that from the Ministry of Defence. We have protected that funding because we believe it is allocated to a very important purpose. We also have the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency as I have explained, which is funded as a core part of the Ministry of Defence budget and helps to provide support to all veterans in Northern Ireland, including those not directly covered by the Aftercare Service. Those sorts of elements are funded from the core MoD budget. We then of course work with the Northern Ireland Executive, but also with organisations in the third sector to try to enhance that provision as well.

Q122Dr McDonnell: Do you have any estimate as to the financial input and how to compare it with Wales or Scotland? I am trying to find out if there is a deprivation problem.

Mark Francois: Is your question, do we spend differently in per capita terms on veterans in Scotland and Wales compared with Northern Ireland?

Dr McDonnell: Yes.

Mark Francois: I do not think there is any disadvantage in terms of what we spend but I am looking at the Admiral just to confirm. I do not believe that there is.

Gavin Barlow: No, certainly not from an MoD point of view.

Q123Oliver Colvile: First, it seems to me that because you served as a reservist and Mike Penning has served in the Army, you have both come up with a similar kind of approach because you have some understanding behind how you both would feel. I think that, if I might say so, is a very useful thing to have. You have obviously got a very close relationship with the NIO, but the problem seems to be somewhere with the Executive and various parties within the Executive who might not be as supportive in trying to bring this forward. I just wondered if you have an idea as to how one might cajole or encourage some parts of the Executive to come slightly more on side.

Mark Francois: I understand the spirit of the question, Mr Colvile. As I said, Mike Penning has been having discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland to try to see if we can make progress and move forward in this particular area. My understanding is that those discussions are, in effect, ongoing. If it so happens that the Minister of State from the NIO is asked to come and talk to you about this, then in fairness he would be best placed to be able to update the Committee on where he has got to on all that. Is there a dialogue with the political parties of Northern Ireland on these issues? Yes there is. Are the NIO in the lead on that dialogue? Yes they are, which frankly is what you would expect. But are we working closely with the NIO on that? Yes, we are.

Q124Oliver Colvile: And you would be willing to give support as well should he require it?

Mark Francois: I have known Mike Penning for a number of years and I have supported him in a number of areas.

Chair: Thank you very much. Are there any final questions anybody would like to ask? We have had quite a good session.

Kate Hoey: Can I say too, Minister, that I am delighted that you used the phrase "United Kingdom" such a lot, and did not refer to "Britain".

Ian Paisley: I think it has been a very helpful session. I do appreciate what you have said and I also just received word that a super new golf course is going to be permitted in North Antrim. You would be more than welcome to bring your armed service personnel there.

Chair: I feel a Committee visit coming on.

Mark Francois: In my day, Mr Paisley, I was more of a rugby player than a golfer, but nevertheless, thank you very much for the offer.

Q125Lady Hermon: Could we just clarify something for the benefit of the Committee, because in the last few minutes you have given very significant evidence-at least I think it is very significant. Throughout the Committee session, you have re-emphasised something that was not a surprise, and that is how very close the working relationship is with the NIO. But with the greatest respect, it is actually the devolved Administration, through the Health Department, through the Department for Social Development, through the Education Department through higher education that will deliver on the ground to ex-service personnel. The impression had been created before the Committee this afternoon that there was this gap, but it was in fact a close working relationship with the NIO and the MoD. Fine; that is what we expect and we are very pleased to hear that. But what you have actually indicated to the Committee, is that the lead is now actually being taken by Mike Penning, the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, that it is he who is now going to liaise with the Departments within the Northern Ireland Assembly rather than the MoD. Is that a very neat political decision and a bit of political manoeuvring? It is to be complimented; it is not a criticism. Is that just the way things have worked out?

Mark Francois: No, I am not taking it as a criticism, Lady Hermon. These are in some respects sensitive matters as I think the Committee knows, and so from the UK Government I think it is important to have dialogue with the political parties in Northern Ireland to see how we can make progress on this issue. I am willing to be a party to that dialogue, but I think the practical reality is that a Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, who is meeting these politicians on a very regular basis, is probably better placed to take forward that dialogue than myself. If I am being humble there, I am also trying to be truthful. If they want ministerial input from me at the MoD, then I stand ready to assist, but frankly Mike Penning sees these people on a far more regular basis. On a purely practical point he is probably best placed to take forward that discussion, and I stand ready to help him.

Q126Lady Hermon: Can I just tease out a little bit more? Was a decision made at the meeting in Downing Street-or at some stage in Downing Street-by the Prime Minister that it should be the Northern Ireland Office that takes the lead on this instead of the Ministry of Defence, given the sensitivity around the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland?

Mark Francois: I am afraid I was genuinely unable to be at that meeting. I was not privy to literally what was said in the room because I was not in the room.

Lady Hermon: Perhaps you could write to us afterwards.

Mark Francois: If the Committee would like us to provide them with a note, I will discuss that with the NIO. I am not trying to be evasive Lady Hermon. I was not there.

Q127Lady Hermon: No, and I am repeating that it is not a criticism of the NIO because Mike Penning is a very fine Minister indeed. The last point in fact I do need some clarification on, and that would be from the Admiral if I could just pinpoint him. At the very beginning of the Committee, when we were looking at where the inadequacies were and we talked about housing, the Minister said there was good access to housing and good access to health, and I just want clarification there. The evidence that was given in the early part of the Committee this afternoon gave the impression that housing was not at issue and that in fact housing was good because the numbers showed that about 100 or so would in fact leaving the services. However, that directly contradicts the memorandum supplied by the MoD to the Committee. I am just reading it. Before you all leave, could we just have clarification? I am reading from the memorandum, "While it might be sympathetic,"-and I am sure it is-"The Housing Executive is prevented by the legislation from giving priority to armed forces personnel and the lack of a local connection means they will accrue fewer points. As a result, many serving personnel transitioning to civilian life in Northern Ireland will not be able to meet the points requirement for social housing" in Northern Ireland. Is there a problem or is there not? I do not know the answer. We have contradictory evidence before us, so please clear up that ambiguity before you leave us this afternoon.

Rear-Admiral Williams: I would be delighted. What I was trying say is that if you look at it on paper then it is more difficult to achieve the points required to gain social housing. Therefore I think I said, if you look at it on paper, you would expect to see more of a problem than there appears to be. What I think the team who put that advice together are saying is that there will no doubt be some individuals who are disadvantaged because they cannot get through that points system, but if that was a large problem I would expect to see much more evidence coming back from the service families federations, from the Commander of 38 Brigade and from all those channels that normally I expect to see, that there was a major housing problem. I did not say that there was not one; I said that I did not have the evidence for it and I would have expected to have had the evidence for it. I cannot sit before you and say, "Yes, Lady Hermon there is a massive problem with housing," because actually if you then say, "Where is your evidence that there is this massive problem with housing?" I could only rehearse those small bullet points on the note.

Q128Lady Hermon: Yes, but you would, I am sure, also accept-because you have actually given the evidence-that a number of armed forces personnel are extremely nervous about coming back to Northern Ireland when they leave the armed forces, about disclosing their identities, their past service, whether it is very distinguished, and I have no doubt that many of them are in fact very distinguished, about actually bringing themselves to the attention of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It is more a hidden problem rather than evidence based. That is something that needs to be looked at by the MoD. It is the evidence we have taken from other witnesses.

Rear-Admiral Williams: Lady Hermon, I do not demur from their logic. There is that absolute logic, but I would say it is not unique to Northern Ireland. Very many service personnel when they leave take the view that they have done their service, they are proud of it, but they do not want to make anything of it. They move into society and they genuinely want to make a break and do something different. It is therefore very difficult for me to take an MoD view on that. We are there to try to provide the hooks if they need it, but I cannot compel them to follow one line or to identify themselves as armed forces personnel.

Mark Francois: And Lady Hermon, I think what would be fair would be, as I say, when I go and discuss these matters face to face with the Commander of 38 Brigade in Northern Ireland, I will raise with him very specifically this issue of access to housing. If the Committee thinks it would be of assistance following that meeting, I will write directly to the Committee with the outcome of that discussion.

Chair: Please do, that would be very helpful.

Lady Hermon: That is very kind. Thank you, I would appreciate that. Thank you for the clarification.

Chair: Minister, gentlemen, it has been a very useful session, thank you very much indeed.

Mark Francois: Thank you Chairman. Thank you very much.

Prepared 16th July 2013