Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 51

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 26 June 2013

Members present:

Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)

Mr David Anderson

Oliver Colvile

Lady Hermon

Kate Hoey

Naomi Long

Dr Alasdair McDonnell

Nigel Mills

Ian Paisley

Andrew Percy

David Simpson

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Mike Penning MP, Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, gave evidence.

Q422 Chair: You are very welcome, Minister. We appreciate you are attending with some very severe time constraints and personal issues, and we are very grateful to you for joining us today. Thank you very much indeed.

Mike Penning: I was very close to letting you guys down. I am conscious I made a promise to do this, but I will leave here and go to my father-in-law’s bedside; he is very poorly. I apologise, I am not on top form and my usual boisterous self, but I will try hard.

Lady Hermon: We are very grateful that you are here.

Q423 Chair: I am sure your next to top form is quite acceptable, so thank you very much for joining us. Are there any opening remarks you would like to make?

Mike Penning: I know it is traditional to give some opening remarks. To put it in context, in September of last year I was appointed Minister of State in Northern Ireland. My previous role was as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, but in this context I had already sat on the Prime Minister’s main Committee on the Covenant. I asked to do that not least because of my own military background, but because there were a lot of crossovers in the Department for Transport, believe it or not, and how we looked after our military once they had left the armed services. Naturally enough, with my new portfolio, I thought it was very important that I gave a Northern Ireland as well as a squaddie’s perspective, if you wish, to the Committee, so I asked to stay on. Very quickly after that, I started to have people coming to see me, particularly political representatives from Northern Ireland, about their concerns about the Covenant, which I thought at the time was right and proper. I shared some of those concerns, which is why this Committee is doing this inquiry.

There was a representation from the DUP to see the Prime Minister, particularly about the Military Covenant. The leadership of the party went, and I was asked to attend that meeting. Subsequent from that meeting, the Prime Minister asked me if I would take overall responsibility for looking at the Covenant within Northern Ireland. That does not at all take away the responsibilities of the Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, but it does allow me to ask questions of the Ministry. I see it from outside; I can ask questions like "Why are you doing this?". Subsequently, like this Committee, we have done an extensive piece of work, and I have reported back to the Prime Minister. I would say, and I say this very openly, that there are parts of the Covenant in Northern Ireland that work a damn sight better than in my own constituency, in particular the way that the charities work closely together. I mentioned only the other weekend to a senior person in SSAFA in my constituency that SSAFA and the British Legion work out of the same room, the same office, in Northern Ireland, and his jaw dropped about four inches. It just does not happen. That is not detrimental to either one of those charities; it is just the way it has happened historically, particularly in England. This allows for a lot of the duplication that we see from the charities not necessarily to take place.

The report basically shows that around about 93%-it is very difficult to be exactly precise, but about 93%-of the Covenant is being delivered on a regular basis within the Province. The 7% is probably what we want to talk a little bit about today as well. My particular area of concern, which I am still doing quite a lot of work on, is post-traumatic stress and how we deliver treatment for that. It is a really, really complicated issue, especially delivering in a small environment like Northern Ireland, where frankly communities are very close. Someone, for instance, could be at a day centre for treatment sitting next to someone who they may not want to sit next to, which may not be exactly the same situation for someone coming back from Afghanistan, for obvious reasons. How we deliver that is something I am working on very closely with the charities and with the Brigadier, who I know gave evidence to this Committee. We are pulling everything together and going to have a single point of contact in the Northern Ireland Office should people feel it is not working properly. That is new, with a new email address specifically for Covenant enquiries and we will be writing to all elected representatives in Northern Ireland in the next few weeks, explaining what should be happening, but if they feel it is not happening there is now a senior civil servant in my own Department who will be responsible for looking after the problem and taking it to the MoD if that is where it needs to be, or to health, housing or wherever it may be.

Having said I was not going to do very much of an opening comment, there we are.

Chair: It is very useful. Mark Francois has written to me outlining that position, which you referred to earlier, as well. Thank you very much.

Q424 Ian Paisley: I personally thank you for coming today, given the circumstances that we have been made aware of. In your comments, Minister, you said 93% has been delivered in Ulster, and there is an issue about the 7%. Could you maybe at a later stage provide us with the statistical basis that has allowed you to say that, so that we know where that is coming from? You could maybe go through a bit more detail. I want to ask you specifically about the veterans forum you established for the military. Could you give us an update on that work and what is happening with it?

Mike Penning: I thought it was very important to give ministerial guidance to all the bodies in Northern Ireland, including the MoD, who are engaged and involved in providing after-service care, for want of better terminology. That Committee has sat. I have now agreed with the Committee, at my suggestion, that it will meet every six months. There are already three forums that take place, and sometimes it is quite complicated to work out who is in charge of what, but the overarching forum will be this ministerial forum.

At the meeting, it was very interesting that for a lot of the groups, particularly some of the charities, it was really the first time they had had an opportunity to thrash out some of the issues they had. The question I kept putting to them was, "Is there duplication? Is one of you spending charitable money on doing X when someone else is doing X as well? Could that be done closer together?" I think everybody accepts that the initial meeting was very useful. The Brigadier has carried it on, with a subcommittee. They have also formed a subsequent forum as well. I will be fair to the Committee; I am slightly concerned that we might have too many forums. I don’t care what the labels are as long as we deliver, and make sure it gets delivered to those that have served our country in that way. The forum has met; we will meet again quite soon, and I can reconvene it at any time should I wish to do so because of a particular incident.

Q425 Ian Paisley: One of the groups in it was the Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment. They said that they had not been involved in the forum at the point when we met them. Was that an oversight, and are they going to be involved?

Mike Penning: As I understand it, they were not at mine, and I have met them extensively. I think it was one of the other forums that they have been invited to. That was an oversight. It has been addressed now. I knew about that, and they are there and they will be there. They are a very, very important part of delivery in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to them. They do an excellent job.

Q426 Ian Paisley: We are looking forward to the publication of the pamphlet you are going to produce, detailing your responsibilities to the charitable organisations, other agencies and so on. I think that will be very useful. Recently, the Committee looked at how veteran issues were handled in the United States of America. They produced a booklet for all service leavers that details basically a one-stop shop, where they go and how they do it. Would you consider that as part of your work?

Mike Penning: If the pamphlet is used for that purpose, it would be really useful. Obviously, it is for the MoD and the Minister of State, Mark Francois, to deal with that, but there is no point having duplication. When I left the army, frankly, I was given a month’s pay-

Ian Paisley: Have you spent it all?

Mike Penning: My box arrived at home about six months later and that was it. I got a warrant to go home and very little else. Things have moved on enormously since I served, but there is still more we can do. The biggest thing I found when I left the army, and I hear from people leaving now, is a real culture shock when you leave the armed forces and come into civvy street. That is why so many of them end up re-enlisting. It is not necessarily because they want to go back-actually many of them will be on the streets of London and other great cities of this nation tonight. We must do everything we can to help them in that transitional period. I think the pamphlet will help. It could be duplicated across the United Kingdom. I do not think it should be just restricted to services available in Northern Ireland. I think if we get this right-

Q427 Ian Paisley: It could be good practice for the whole of the UK.

Mike Penning: It will be good practice-best practice, a word we use quite a lot. It needs to be updated regularly as well. One of the ways we are looking at updating it is making it available online, like everything these days. That can be updated very easily and quickly, and then the formal pamphlet can be perhaps quarterly or six-monthly.

Q428 Ian Paisley: In terms of concrete outcomes, one of the issues we saw working in the States is that every soldier leaves with a mobile phone. That appeared to be the regular way in which the veterans services kept in contact with former soldiers. It appeared to be a very useful way of keeping in touch and keeping them informed of rights and opportunities that they had. Again, it might be something that you could look at.

Mike Penning: That will be something for the Minister of State in the MoD to look at, because there is obviously a cost implication. The point you made about having a point of contact is very important. Long before I got into this portfolio, one of the things that I thought was important, which data protection and other things get involved in, is that the charities, especially the charities involved in delivering care, should know when someone is coming out of the armed forces. That would be a simple tick-box, for instance, on their discharge form: "Can we give your email address, or an email address, to the forum?" in our case. That cannot be done at the present time, but it is massively important that we do as much as we can.

Pride is the biggest thing. In our constituencies when we meet former servicemen and women, the last thing they want to do is ask for help, particularly if they are suffering from post-traumatic stress. They may not even know that they are-the biggest thing about that is they do not know themselves. We need to be there for them, which is perhaps why I banged on the door and asked whether I could have this portfolio on the Armed Forces Covenant side.

Q429 Oliver Colvile: First of all, thank you very much, Minister. I am sorry I was late, but I was listening to the Chancellor delivering his comprehensive spending review.

So that you are aware, I spoke to Mark Francois last week about this. He and I have agreed to try and meet again and have a further conversation about the benefit book that was produced in the United States of America. He did make the point, of course, about the National Health Service. We have one, whereas in the States they do not actually have it. The second thing that I have always thought is, yes, we do need to make sure we have an intranet so that the veterans can actually tap into that. Thirdly, one of the other things that came out of our trip to America was that they ring the veterans after they have left, some three months later. If they don’t get an answer they go back to them, and they follow them up for six months or so to make sure that happens. Finally, can I make the point that the reservists also need to end up by actually being included? My advice would be not that we should give them a tickbox, but that there should be a tick-box if they do not want the information to be given. It needs to be positive rather than negative.

Mike Penning: I agree. Of course, while we have the NHS here, the Veterans Agency hospitals in America are brilliant. I visited those when I was the shadow Health Minister, when we were looking at their IT system, which at the time was the largest IT operating data system in the world. That was brilliant, and they told us the one for our health service would not work because they had tried it, so that was interesting. It is a huge agency-you visited them; they are a massive organisation, and hugely funded. The point I also would make, which you rightly make, is that this is one army, one armed forces. As we move even more to relying on the reservists, they must be treated exactly the same. In many ways, we probably need to look at them more, because if they come straight back from operations, and go straight back into their civilian occupation, they don’t get the sort of downtime that the regulars get, which is obviously difficult.

Q430 Oliver Colvile: You might like to come and visit Hasler Unit, in my constituency, which deals with people who have lost their limbs.

Mike Penning: I think you will find I have, actually.

Lady Hermon: That is after the Minister has visited my constituency to see Palace Barracks.

Q431 Kate Hoey: Thank you for coming, Minister. I think really the crux of our whole inquiry, and certainly what I, and I am sure all Members, want to know, is are you confident that all the work is being done to absolutely ensure that the armed forces community in Northern Ireland do not face any disadvantage compared with the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mike Penning: Yes, I am confident of that. There are obviously political situations in Northern Ireland that make the delivery sometimes more complicated than in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I would say that there are people in other parts of the United Kingdom in political bases that are also not supportive of our armed forces. They are not in Northern Ireland, and not in my constituency or previous constituencies. It is not the fact that we can’t deliver the Armed Forces Covenant; it just has to be delivered sometimes in a slightly different way, but the key is that it is being delivered. I have been pleasantly surprised, for instance, when I raised the issue with all the political leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland. When I said to Martin McGuinness, "I may need your help publicly on this," he said, "You’ve got it," and I am more than happy to put that on the record.

Q432 Kate Hoey: The Committee on the Administration of Justice have highlighted some benefits that could arise from looking at the objective need of the armed forces community in relation particularly to health and housing. Is that the kind of work that the Northern Ireland veterans forum is doing? Is it comprehensive enough?

Mike Penning: Housing was one of the issues we looked at very early on because, in a lot of councils in Northern Ireland, you could just walk in and say, "I am an exserviceman, can you help me about my housing situation?" In other parts that would not be a particularly safe thing to do, but that does not mean that that community is not delivering the provision. We found no evidence at all of any problems with that. Where we do, that is exactly the sort of situation where at the end of it there will be me actually working it through with my officials. I must praise the work that the Brigadier has done on this, because he is very conscious, and has put an awful lot of effort and commitment into making sure that, where there have been problems, it does not become a story, we just sort the problem out. I think that is what we would all want.

Q433 Kate Hoey: The other area they raised was the whole question of welfare and disabilities, particularly relating to disability benefits. Are the Government looking at the effects of that specifically?

Mike Penning: Yes. As you can imagine, no matter where in the United Kingdom you come from, if you come from the armed forces and you have a condition that has been either caused or exacerbated by your service in the armed forces, you should not be worse off. That is exactly what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Lord Freud have been looking into-Iain Duncan Smith comes from the Scots Guards, and I would have his guts for garters if he wasn’t looking at it. It is very important that people understand that people should not and cannot be worse off if they have served their Queen.

Q434 Kate Hoey: I am very encouraged by your answer to my first question. Presumably the Government is committed to filling any gaps that might be identified anywhere either through us or through the forum.

Mike Penning: Yes, I think filling the gaps sometimes could be taken as "We will go and sort that problem out." My attitude is that I will get that problem sorted out. It may not be me and my Department, but we will sort it out.

Kate Hoey: But you are responsible. Thank you very much.

Q435 Nigel Mills: Mike, that all sounds very encouraging. Are there any upsides or downsides to this issue becoming more of a political hot potato? Would you be concerned if this became a political debating point in Northern Ireland? It might wind some people up to perhaps try and block things rather than help things carry on. Is it better to be under the radar rather than being given greater attention?

Mike Penning: I think the biggest concern of the military and the charities is that it does become a political hot potato, or a tool used by a particular party. To be fair, some of the political parties have come to me and said they were concerned about, for instance, section 75, and whether that was causing problems. I have been able to discuss with both of those party leaderships that actually section 75 is not causing problems, and they have accepted that now. I spoke to the Chairman of this Committee about it privately, that wherever possible we need not to create the story, as I alluded to earlier on. Let’s not let these people be used. They have served us; let’s make sure we look after them rather than creating any political clout for an individual or party.

Q436 Lady Hermon: It is very good of you to keep your promise, as we expected you always to do, by coming before us this afternoon, in light of your personal circumstances. Could I ask for clarification of a key statement you made to the Committee? If my hearing serves me correctly, it implied that Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, had given a commitment that he would give you his backing. But let’s just clarify: backing to the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland?

Mike Penning: I have spoken to all the political leaders in Northern Ireland. I said to them that, for this to work and not to become a political hot potato, I needed them, if necessary publicly, to support that the armed forces are looked after when they leave the armed forces. I got that commitment from all of them, including Martin McGuinness.

Q437 Lady Hermon: And he is prepared to say that publicly.

Mike Penning: Yes. That is what he said to me. Can I emphasise this? This is why I do not want this to be a political hot potato. There has been no evidence whatsoever that Martin McGuinness’s party and Ministers have not been fulfilling their commitment to the Covenant; actually, they have.

Lady Hermon: I have to say, Minister, that actually contradicts a lot of the evidence that we have received from other witnesses before the Committee, so that is why I had to clarify that particular statement. That is a key piece of evidence for the Committee. Thank you.

Q438 Naomi Long: Good to have you with us. Following on from the last piece of evidence and discussion we had, we have been told that, when the MoD wrote to the Northern Ireland Executive asking for input into the annual report on the Armed Forces Covenant, no reply was received.

Mike Penning: Correct.

Q439 Naomi Long: I think there had been a working assumption that there may have been an issue getting cross-party agreement within the Executive for such a report to be forwarded. I have a couple of questions. First of all, have the NIO taken any role, or have any of your discussions centred around how the Executive might be able to engage directly with that report? When we spoke to two of the Ministers who came and gave evidence to us, they said they would be happy to respond individually to the report in terms of what their ministerial remit refers to. Other Ministers may be in the same situation. Is there any way that could be facilitated, as opposed to an Executive report that would have to go through the Executive mechanism, assuming that that is where the block lies? This is really to try and find some clarity as to whether you have established where the block lies.

Mike Penning: Far be it from me to know exactly where the block sits, in the Executive or anywhere else. One of the things I wanted to do in taking this portfolio forward was actually, if necessary, to get individual consents. It is very, very difficult, as I am sure you are aware, for many things to have completely consensual agreement. That is the way forward at the moment, though. Obviously this is devolved, so it is entirely up to them whether they submit or not as an Executive. My view is to save, for want of a better word, a longer discussion or anything like that, if individually they would submit, I think the MoD would be very happy with that, and certainly the Prime Minister’s Committee would be-speaking for them.

Q440 Naomi Long: That would be very helpful because I think individual Ministers would be willing to submit. It would avoid the appearance that actually the Armed Forces Covenant is not being implemented at all in Northern Ireland, which is the impression that is being given.

Mike Penning: I was going to wait to see your report, Mr Chairman, but it was my intention to write to the individual Ministers responsible, and ask whether I could get that indication from them. To all intents and purposes, it does not matter what the label is on the letters. If I have got the letters, that is the end of it; we are where we are.

Q441 Naomi Long: In terms of the report and how it is handled once it is received, obviously some people have expressed disappointment that it has not been debated on the Floor of the House to give people an opportunity. I know there was some debate around armed forces issues yesterday, but not actually a debate on that report on an annual basis. That would be a role for the MoD. Is that something that the Government would be interested in? Is it something that in principle you would be keen to advocate for in your role?

Mike Penning: I know my place in the hierarchy of this great establishment, which is very low. That would be something for the business managers and the MoD, not for me. However, I do think it is important that there is a full facility when the documents come in. Of course, there are many other ways of getting a debate on the Floor of the House or in the Chamber about this sort of thing, where very often you can get that more quickly-I am going to get shot by the business managers now-than if you wait for Government time, perhaps.

Q442 Naomi Long: Perhaps, as a suggestion, you would be willing, in your role after the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, to advocate from what you describe as a lowly position. Relative to most of us, you would find the ear of the MoD slightly more quickly to advocate for that, and it would be a good opportunity.

Mike Penning: I reiterate, though, from my experience on the Back Benches, and many Members have been here an awful lot longer than me, that there are many avenues to get it a lot more quickly than waiting for me to get to the top of the list-perhaps. I see Mr Chairman nodding, so he knows what I am saying.

Q443 Chair: I don’t know. Everything is relative, as Naomi said. I was busy doing other things at the time, but I think the Prime Minister did mention the Armed Forces Covenant today in Prime Minister’s Questions.

Mike Penning: I was not there either.

Chair: It is obviously quite high on his agenda as well.

Mike Penning: I was swotting my brief.

Chair: Indeed.

Oliver Colvile: He did.

Chair: Yes, I thought so.

Q444 Mr Anderson: It is good of you to come, Minister, given the circumstances. Can you explain to us how the Executive, the various UK Government Departments and the individual Departments in Northern Ireland actually work on the Covenant? Do you have a formal meeting structure?

Mike Penning: No. Sitting down with the Executive or the Ministers in Northern Ireland in a formal structure just does not work. What I have done is meet them individually, whether it has been in health or elsewhere, and discuss it with them. There are very good channels, particularly with 38 Brigade in that regard. One of the things we wanted to do by setting up the Committee, headed by myself with the Brigadier chairing if I am not there, was to have confidence that if someone came to my constituency office today and said to me, "I am a soldier and I have got this problem", you know you can go through the correct channels. One of the reasons that the MoD, and Mark Francois in particular as the Minister of State, have been happy for me to take this role on, and why the Prime Minister asked me to do this, is because they know I will be that advocate, coming from a military background. But I am not going to beat around the bush: is it difficult sometimes? Yes, of course it is, but it does not mean that you are not going to do it.

Q445 Mr Anderson: We are all pleased with what you said before about your view that this was working well over there, despite the fact that we cannot show it, because we don’t have written evidence on that. Would you say it is working as well as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom? If it is not, are there any barriers that we could move, or any lessons we can learn from other parts of the United Kingdom that could be applied to Northern Ireland?

Mike Penning: I would probably reiterate what I said in my opening remarks. I wish that charities worked as closely in my constituency as they work in Northern Ireland. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. Are there turf issues? Are there people who have done this historically over many years, and new charities on the block are finding that is an issue? Yes, of course. The willingness to actually sit down and talk and then, on a day-to-day basis, work together is something the rest of the United Kingdom could do better.

One of the reasons is that because they have to do a lot of this work quietly, they have learnt to do it this way, whereas in my constituency, and perhaps in your own, there is a lot more in your face going on. I reiterate what I said at the start. I came into this very sceptical, but I have been really very pleasantly surprised. I do not want to damage the good work that has been done. Is there more to be done? Of course there is. You will get people to give evidence to this Committee, I am sure, who say, "This is happening and that is happening." That is perfectly understandable. Nothing is going to be perfect, but to answer your question about whether this is operating better in the Province of Ulster, I think it is.

Mr Anderson: Good.

Q446 Dr McDonnell: Thank you very much, Minister, in the circumstances, for being with us. Obviously you have told us that you are taking the lead in Northern Ireland, but are you getting all the co-operation you want from the MoD?

Mike Penning: Yes, to the extent where I am not even certain they are here listening to what I am saying, which is very unusual. Two things. I think the MoD fully understand that they can do so much in Northern Ireland, but then there has to be political steer in Northern Ireland as well, and I am being used, if you wish, in that capacity. It is fairly unusual for the MoD to give this sort of support to another Government Department in heading this up, so that is good news as well. Of course, they were told to by the Prime Minister. At the end of the day, the Prime Minister said, "Mr Penning is going to do this, and I want the Minister of State to report back," so that has been useful. Not only is the Prime Minister hugely supportive of the Covenant, because you heard him today-which I wasn’t there for-but I can talk to the Prime Minister about this issue. He is very much on board with this, so with that sort of credibility you tend to get support because they know, at the end of the day, that it is very important.

Q447 Dr McDonnell: What struck me about veterans affairs in the US was that there is a separate Department there. Is there not a case for a separate veterans division of some sort within the MoD that would be more focused and, if you like, more specific? What worried me, and I am coming relatively new to this stuff, was to some extent I felt, if there is a problem, where the Covenant was needed here was to ensure that people got healthcare. Really, what is happening is attempts have to be made to squeeze more out of an already overstretched health service or housing situation in some cities or whatever across Britain. Would it not be better that you had, as a resource, however small, a veterans affairs unit or committee, call it whatever you like, that had the money to basically add value where the health service or housing was so that veterans could get a top-up rather than coming into a pressured situation? That is my concern.

Mike Penning: Our version of the Veterans Agency does exist here, but it is not funded in the same way, because obviously you do not have a universal welfare system in America for a starter. That is part of the biggest reason. I remember looking at this when in Opposition, and having discussions with the Prime Minister about it, because it is a passion I have had all my life, or certainly since I served. We have a Veterans Agency, and we have now a Minister of State who is the Veterans Minister. It was the most junior job in the MoD before, but over the years it has been elevated.

Personally, I do not think you could do that in this country, simply because of the way that the health service and education are, but it is certainly one for the policy wonks to look at to see how it is done. To do that-I am being very honest about this-you would have to draw funding from nigh-on every Department in Government to put into a central pool, and I do not know how that would work. A little note has been passed to me: the SPVA does exist and are very active, and they are part of my Committee as well in Northern Ireland.

Q448 Dr McDonnell: I have a couple of other brief points. We heard a great deal of evidence about the highly valued aftercare service in Northern Ireland. Would there be benefits in expanding that service to a wider catchment of veterans? Have you any views on the possibility of widening the service?

Mike Penning: To widen it, you would certainly have to speak to the Armed Forces Minister, because it is funded by the MoD for two specific units of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. They are highly valued and they are very good. However, to expand it to cover all ex-servicemen within the Province would be very complicated and probably would not deliver in the same way. You are probably aware that the aftercare services have three more years’ worth of funding. I may be wrong, it may be four, but they are secure, which is what they were concerned about. I have an open mind about that. At the moment, I think we are okay, but it would be quite a shift in their remit to do it that way.

Q449 Dr McDonnell: Would there be a possibility of the forum looking at that, or the feasibility of that?

Mike Penning: I do not think it is something for the forum to discuss at this stage. It may well be what Ministers need to discuss. I will wait for the Committee’s report as to how that works. There is no hint either way. We have looked at it and at the moment we have decided not to, but everything is open.

Q450 Dr McDonnell: The Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment raised concerns that the aftercare service was only funded on a temporary basis. I gather the funding is now committed to about 2016.

Mike Penning: Yes. I would be amazed if they did not come before this Committee and say they were worried, because nothing in finance in Government is permanent. They did very well and put a very good argument together to get that funding to 2016. The negotiations will start, I think, in late 2014 or 2015 to see how that flows forward. I was not at the spending round announcement earlier on today, but money is very tight, so for them to get that shows you the esteem that they are held in within Government.

Q451 Lady Hermon: I have two quite different questions, although obviously, there will be a bit of an overlap given the topic we are discussing. The Northern Ireland Executive, we understand, is the only devolved Administration not to have actually formally nominated a representative to the Covenant Reference Group. In light of your evidence earlier today about the attitudes, certainly, of the most senior member in the Executive, the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, why do you think they have not nominated someone to the Covenant Reference Group?

Mike Penning: I don’t know. That is a straight answer to a straight question. Would we like them to? Of course we would, and we are doing everything we can, and we will continue to encourage them to do so. Of course, the Executive in Northern Ireland is completely different from the other two devolved Administrations. With that in mind, of course as we move more and more to normalisation within Northern Ireland-we saw that with the G8 only last week-would we hope that they send a delegation? Yes. Am I going to talk to them extensively about this? Yes. Do I want the same person to come every time? No: they can spread it around if they want. I don’t mind how they do it, but I would like them to do that; of course I would.

Q452 Lady Hermon: In light of the expression of support given by Martin McGuinness, you would expect things to change and improve, and for someone to be nominated-not necessarily Martin McGuinness, obviously.

Mike Penning: I did not discuss that point with him. I discussed the issue to do with supporting ex-service personnel and the Covenant. It is certainly something we can discuss, and I am more than happy to raise it again with them directly, through officials, if necessary. It would be useful, to say the least, that they sent a representative to the committee.

Q453 Lady Hermon: Yes, it would be extraordinarily helpful.

Mike Penning: I have said it already: this is not just about Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein. There are five political parties involved in the Executive, in the coalition, and it is important that it is seen to be a Northern Ireland delegation.

Q454 Lady Hermon: Yes, I think as a Committee we would be very happy if someone was to represent the Executive.

Mike Penning: At the moment it is me.

Q455 Oliver Colvile: Specifically on that point, it is either one of two things. Either we, Mr Chairman, might write as a Committee asking why the Executive in Northern Ireland has not nominated people, or would it be possible for you-

Mike Penning: It is entirely up to the Committee what you do, but I continue to raise it and publicly say that it would be helpful, to say the least, if a representative was at the committee. We are in a coalition situation in Northern Ireland, and there are five political parties represented in the Executive. If one turned up each time, that would be helpful, but that is for them to decide, and not for me. I want them to govern-for want of a better word.

Q456 Lady Hermon: We appreciate that you were not actually present for the statement by the Chancellor on the comprehensive spending review. I was struck by much that he said, but in particular he gave a commitment, much to be welcomed-I am reading exactly what he said-"to fund the Military Covenant permanently". That was the word he used, and that was welcomed around the House. As the Minister with particular responsibility in Northern Ireland, could we have a guarantee that Northern Ireland and the veterans in Northern Ireland will benefit from that commitment of spending, and the commitment permanently?

Mike Penning: As I understand the Chancellor’s comments, he was speaking as the Chancellor for the United Kingdom, so naturally that would be for the United Kingdom.

Q457 Lady Hermon: So our veterans in Northern Ireland will not be forgotten.

Mike Penning: They are not forgotten now.

Q458 Lady Hermon: They are not forgotten now. Could I just make a suggestion, Minister? It is something that has been brought to my attention in my constituency. As we move towards commemorations, which will be tinged with sadness, to mark the First World War, there are groups trying to upgrade war memorials to commemorate the war dead particularly of the Great War and the Second World War. Money is very tight for local government. Is it something that you could kindly take back-you obviously have a very good working relationship with Mark Francois and the Ministry of Defence-that in Northern Ireland we could look at money earmarked for upgrading war memorials across Northern Ireland where they need them? Not all of them do, but I do know one or two in my constituency.

Mike Penning: You have touched on a very important point, which is the sad but important commemoration of the First World War, particularly the Somme, which is coming quite soon. The work that I am doing, and other Departments are doing, particularly with Ministers in the South, is hugely important. One of the things we are looking at doing is getting the five, or it may be seven, VCs that were won by Irishmen at the Somme. We will take those to the Somme. We are trying to track down the owners. We know the owners of most of them. I think two of them are in museums; the Fusiliers Museum in Armagh, which I had the pleasure of visiting, actually has one of them. It is not my portfolio, but in my own constituency we have a memorial, and there was help from the Memorial Fund. There is a national fund to help with restoration and repairs to memorials. I will get my officials to send that note to the Committee.

Lady Hermon: That is very kind of you. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Q459 Ian Paisley: I have a point on memorial and promotion-helping to boost morale. As the Minister will know, I pushed the Armed Forces Minister quite hard about a permanent state of the art museum for the Irish soldier, because our history of fusiliers and all the rest of it is very significant. I don’t know if the Minister would take a second bite at pushing for a very special one-off museum in Ulster for the Irish soldier, where all these things could be brought together, tourists could be attracted to it, and we could have a significant uplift of interest in the activities of the armed services. All the regimental silver, for example, could be collected and put into one point. It is something we have talked about, but it would be something that would be very significant for us.

Mike Penning: I have raised it with the Armed Forces Minister. The MoD is going through a consultation at the moment. I think there will be a museum-it is just where. There may even be more than one, interestingly enough. I have been trying to track down some of the regimental silver as well, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is really difficult, but very important.

I come back to the previous point I was making on the work we are doing with the Republic. There is a sea change in mood, especially to do with First World War. I served with soldiers from the Republic who were in the British Army. It was very hard when they went home on leave-really hard. A lot of them stayed with us actually, and did not go home for many years. After the First World War, there was a very similar situation; lots of them did not get jobs, did not get their jobs back, things like that, and a lot of the medals were thrown away or destroyed from shame. There is a real change in that a lot of people are now trying to get their medals back. They ask whether their grandfathers got their medals, if there is any way they can buy duplicate medals, and all these sorts of things. I know the Veterans Agency are doing a lot of work at the moment to actually try and make sure that families, no matter where they are from, north or south of the border, whose loved ones served bravely, could have those medals and those sorts of things back.

The point the hon. Gentleman touched on, which I think is enormously important, is to remember the Irish soldier.

Q460 Ian Paisley: Let us take the history of the Black Watch. When they served for the first time in Ireland in 1812, I think it was, they were paid an additional allowance because it was so windy and it blew their hats off. That is quite an interesting aside, and stories like that are-

Mike Penning: The Committee may not know that I have just been made an honorary Colonel of the Second Battalion of the Royal Irish Cadets, and head gear for me as a guardsman has become a whole new experience. The interesting thing is, of course, with the Mercians leaving Northern Ireland, a Scottish regiment coming back to be based in Northern Ireland will be hugely significant. As we know, that is now going to happen.

Q461 David Simpson: It is good to have you here, Minister. My sympathies with your circumstances. One of the main issues that we have been pursuing during the course of the inquiry is the impact of the equality legislation in Northern Ireland, which you touched on briefly, on the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant. Most recently, we heard that implementation of a significant portion of the Covenant was entirely in keeping with Northern Ireland’s equality framework. What is your view on that?

Mike Penning: I agree. Section 75 was the contentious thing. I met a delegation from the hon. Gentleman about this the other day, and Nigel Dodds said to me, "This is not an issue for us now; we accept the evidence that you have put to us that it is not an issue." It does not mean we should be complacent. It is something we have to work at as a community to make sure, but the special legislation that sits with section 75 in Northern Ireland is not a hindrance for the Covenant, and that is very important.

Q462 Lady Hermon: I appreciate you are not a lawyer so I am not putting you on the spot, but as a Committee we have received conflicting evidence from witnesses about the actual status of the Armed Forces Covenant. We know that we have got the Armed Forces Act of 2011, and some witnesses said that the Covenant itself was an aspiration; it is a principle about how we look after our veterans. Others felt it is enshrined in law, it is a legally enforceable right and the MoD has a responsibility. Would you like to give us the wisdom of your experience as to where you think the status of the Armed Forces Covenant truly lies? I can see from your face that you are pleased to have this question.

Mike Penning: That is because I am not a lawyer. I remember going through the Lobbies and voting for a piece of legislation on the Military Covenant; it is law in this country. However, as I have said a couple of times to the Committee today, in my own constituency, there are some 4,000 people inappropriately housed on the social housing waiting list. Have I managed to resolve the issue of servicemen and women coming out of the armed forces and getting housed in my constituency as per the Covenant? No, I have not yet. It is an issue across the United Kingdom, but it is not an aspiration; it is a requirement that no one should be worse off, or whatever language we want to use, should they have come out of the armed forces. They should not be better off, but they should not be worse off.

Q463 Lady Hermon: Yes. They should not be penalised for serving Queen and country. I agree with that indeed. Members of the Committee, and I wasn’t one of them, were able to benefit from a recent visit to America. During the representations that were made to them there, one of the issues discussed was the fact that they have special courts-the Veteran Treatment Courts in the United States. I am quoting because I wasn’t on this particular trip. These were courts that were set up to address the specific needs of veterans involved in the criminal justice system, and help ensure sentences are positive and treatment orientated. Is that model in America something you would advocate that we should perhaps follow, or like me, do you believe that in fact we are equal before the law and that includes veterans as well?

Mike Penning: It is not always that I agree with the hon. Lady, but I completely agree on this occasion. I am teasing you. How anybody wants to follow the American legal system-frankly, I don’t fancy that very much at all. It is a crazy system, and very litigious. We are all equals. If you have served the Queen, and in some cases we are talking about many, many years, no matter how you did it, you have the same rights as anybody else in this country. That has to be it. Having special courts for special people-my concern is where will that end? If you look at America as to where it has gone, it is a very interesting situation. You have the likes of Judge Judy on the TV, where you give up your rights to a democratic trial because some pompous woman wants to get on TV again in the next couple of days. That is probably libellous, but there you go.

Lady Hermon: Yes, I am very pleased to be unanimous with the Minister.

Q464 Andrew Percy: In fairness to the American legal system, it is built on 1,000 years of English common law history, and the Judge Judy model could be operating in exactly the same way under our system. If you have signed a contract, there is nothing wrong with that. However, I want to come in on this treatment courts issue. As we saw at the presentation, it is not about giving people access to a different legal system at all, where there are different sanctions. It is about giving people who have served their country a more informal support to help prevent them reoffending. We do it in this country for lots of groups of people already. We do it for young people through the Respect programme. It is not something that runs contrary to the legal system.

I would just say, Minister, that I hope this is something that you and other colleagues in Government would at least look at. It is not about accessing a completely different judicial system; it is about how you treat people, who may have particular mental health problems that have been caused by their service, in avoiding reoffending. You were not to know from the way it has been presented today, but I hope that we will be able to, and I know Dave will be coming on to speak to you about this, because it is about preventing reoffending.

Mike Penning: To be fair, I know the system and have looked at it. I am still quite antagonistic towards it, because I don’t see the need here. Without delving into other Departments and other ministerial colleagues’ responsibilities, looking at America and looking at how we look after our vets are completely different. Even though they have veterans charities, they are not like ours. They are not like Help for Heroes, the British Legion or SSAFA. Combat Stress is what we have here. The similarities just are not there.

Q465 Andrew Percy: I understand that in a way, but the presentation we received from the veterans court that was set up in Arkansas was not about people who are simply veterans having access; it is people whose criminal behaviour can be linked to something that has happened in service, and consequently they need to be dealt with in a particularly sensitive and different way, in the same way as people in our system who have a drug dependency or, through the Respect programme. We are trying to avoid court, so I would reiterate that. For people whose criminal behaviour is perhaps driven by their service, I would hope that we would be able to find something in our justice or probation system that would recognise that, and respond more sensitively.

Mike Penning: I am always as pragmatic and as open minded as I can be. I will certainly speak to colleagues, particularly in the Ministry of Justice, and take a look at it. However, I would be misleading the Committee if I said that I thought there was a need to do that. I may be already starting from a negative position, and it is a long way to move me to another position. However, when you look at section 75, I did come from there. I did think there was a problem when I first came into this, so I am very open minded about it. I am conscious, though, that it is a very different system.

Chair: One more contribution on this, then we will have to move on.

Q466 Mr Anderson: I have been quite involved in this as well, Minister. The thing for me that stands out is that these courts are working. You can’t forget the fact that they are veteran-specific. The Buffalo Court has been going the longest: 300 offenders, not one reoffence. Whatever way we pitch it, I would suggest as a nation we should look at that because, if nothing else, it would save us money. It is obviously for the betterment of the people in there, and the key thing is, everybody involved in the system and the courts are all ex-service people. They have empathy. They are not soft on the people going through the courts. The first thing people have to do is admit they are guilty. It was based on work they had done in drugs courts about ordinary people getting into drugs. It does not really do much good to bang those people up. All they keep doing is going back. It is about stopping that reoffending. All we ask as a Committee, from the evidence we have had, is: will the Government at least look at this? It will be different from things we have done in the past, although I have to mention the work we have done with Lord Beecham, who was the Labour spokesperson in the Lords, a longstanding lawyer. I worked with him in Newcastle. He said it is similar to what we do in domestic violence courts; people like Andrew will know better than me about that sort of thing. My view is, if this is something that is working, surely it needs looking at.

Mike Penning: The commitment I gave to my hon. Friend is that I will speak to the Ministry of Justice. It is their brief, not mine. In general terms, it is the MoD as well. Whereas I have responsibility for the Covenant in Northern Ireland, the MoD has the responsibility for the Covenant in its entirety. My officials are scribbling away as we speak, and I shall drop them a line.

Q467 Oliver Colvile: During the course of our trip, we obviously learnt quite a bit about how it is that the US Government takes greater responsibility for providing support for veterans than the UK Government. I fully understand there are a separate set of issues. They do not have a National Health Service; we do. They do not necessarily have municipal housing in the same way as we do either, so that’s fine. Do you think there are other areas where the UK Government could provide greater support? How do you think-this has been a big bugbear of mine during the course of the last three years-we can try to get Government Departments working much more closely together? You told a wonderful story about how the MoD is working very closely with you, but what about other areas as well?

Mike Penning: I will answer the last question first. Anything any Committee, Parliamentarian or anybody can do to get Government Departments to work closer together is brilliant. I experienced it when I was at Transport, when I gave an exemption to the special forces to use blue light. When I became the Transport Minister, I could not believe that bomb disposal guys could not technically use a blue light. We changed that law and allowed them to do so, and the same for our special forces. I think you are dragging me into territory that is not mine, and I have no intention of doing down that route, Mr Chairman. That is a matter for the MoD rather than me. I just have a specific brief on this in Northern Ireland. Rather than being tempted to have a personal view, I might let someone else give evidence on that, should they wish to.

Q468 Oliver Colvile: Tomorrow, we are meeting the insurance industry to talk to them about the Covenant issue as well. Do you think there should be a way in which veterans potentially could get a preferential rate on insurance?

Mike Penning: Insurance should be based on risk. That is for the insurers, which is why I was very much opposed to the European ruling that said that the insurance companies could not charge less for women than men, because women frankly are safer drivers than men. That is a fact.

Lady Hermon: Oh, say that again for the record.

Mike Penning: For the record it is a fact, actually. I personally think it is a matter for insurance companies to decide what the risk is, and whether or not they feel that they should encourage people to be insured with them because of their previous careers. It should be based on risk. That is what insurance is about, isn’t it? You insure against risk. All I can say is that the armed forces has a broad church of driving abilities. Coming from the Guards, I should probably shut up at that point.

Chair: That is the end of the public session. I will ask members of the public to leave the room now. Thank you very much for attending.

Prepared 16th July 2013