The Armed Forces Covenant was published in May 2011, and set out the relationship between the people of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty's Government and the Armed Forces Community. The Covenant stressed the moral obligation the nation has to the Armed Forces Community, and stated that members of the Armed Forces Community should not be disadvantaged as a result of service and that, in certain cases, special consideration was appropriate. HM Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have published detailed reports outlining the support offered to the Armed Forces Community, and how the Covenant is being implemented in England, Scotland and Wales. As yet, no such report has been produced by the Northern Ireland Executive. As part of our inquiry we have looked at areas where progress has been made in Northern Ireland in relation to the Armed Forces Covenant, and areas where more needs to be done.
Mechanisms which have been put in place which work well and are in keeping with the spirit of the Armed Forces Covenant include:
· the Northern Ireland Department for Health, Social Security and Public Safety's protocol for ensuring equitable access to health and social care services for the Armed Forces, and the Armed Forces Liaison Forum that was set up to support it, and
· the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish (Home Service) Regiment Aftercare Service, which delivers bespoke support services to veterans of these regiments and is highly valued by the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland.
Due to devolution, there is variation across the regions of the UK in relation to the provision of health, housing and education. There are some specific benefits that exist in Great Britain but are not available in Northern Ireland, including improved access to IVF treatment, priority in accessing NHS healthcare, additional priority in accessing social housing, and certain educational entitlements. However, the evidence we received from Armed Forces charities and the Commander of 38 (Irish) Brigade indicated that local solutions could be found in most cases where the above differences affected members of the Armed Forces Community, and that there was no significant disadvantage to veterans who chose to settle in Northern Ireland. We were also told by Ministers from HM Government that they were working with various Northern Ireland departments to make progress on a number of the issues above.
There are still a number of areas where improvements could be made. We have made recommendations which include the following:
· HM Government should respond to the identified needs of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, and report on how these will be met;
· The MoD should approach individual Northern Ireland departments for contributions to future Annual Reports on the Armed Forces Covenant, so that the Secretary of State for Defence can report on progress in Northern Ireland, and on those areas where more needs to be done; and
· The NIO and MoD should work with the Northern Ireland Executive towards the appointment of a representative from the Executive to the Covenant Reference Group.