Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents


3  Barriers to implementation in Northern Ireland?

11. We heard from a number of witnesses that the political and legal situation in Northern Ireland meant the Armed Forces Covenant had not been able to be implemented there in the same way as throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The two main issues raised by witnesses were the possibility that the equality framework in Northern Ireland was in conflict with giving special consideration to the Armed Forces Community, and that certain members of the Northern Ireland Executive were not necessarily sympathetic to the principles or implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant. The Royal British Legion's written memorandum made the point that the historical and legislative backdrop in Northern Ireland created a different situation in relation to implementing the Armed Forces Covenant.[9] This position was supported by the MoD:

    The delivery of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland requires a different approach from the rest of the United Kingdom [...] It is important that the unique security, legislative and political context in Northern Ireland is considered and that appropriate governance mechanisms are in place to ensure that support is delivered effectively. The existing network in support of the Covenant in Northern Ireland is working well and, while there is always scope for further improvements, the ends articulated in the Covenant are being increasingly met.[10]

12. We accept that the different political and legal situation in Northern Ireland, compared to Great Britain, makes issues relating to the Armed Forces delicate and potentially contentious. However, this should not mean that the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland should be disadvantaged either compared with other groups there, or when compared to that community elsewhere in the UK, beyond that variation which would be expected under normal devolution.

Equality legislation

13. A number of witnesses raised concerns that certain equality legislation in Northern Ireland had been cited as a barrier to implementation of aspects of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland,[11] but the evidence we received both from equality organisations in Northern Ireland and HM Government was that this did not, in fact, represent a significant issue.[12] The principle that the Armed Forces Community should not be disadvantaged as a result of military service was particularly noted by many as entirely in keeping with the equality framework in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant did state in its introduction that in Northern Ireland "the suggestion that the Covenant could provide preferential access to cross-government services for serving and former members of the Armed Forces could be seen as running counter to their strict equalities legislation."

14. One particular piece of legislation cited by witnesses as being a potential barrier to implementation of the Covenant was section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which places statutory duties on public authorities in Northern Ireland as follows:

    (1) A public authority shall in carrying out its functions relating to Northern Ireland have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity—

    (a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;

    (b) between men and women generally;

    (c) between persons with a disability and persons without;

    and

    (d) between persons with dependants and persons without

    In addition, without prejudice to this obligation, Public Authorities are also required to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, and racial group.[13]

15. Witnesses, such as the Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment, argued that section 75 needed to be amended to enable the full implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland.[14] When questioned on whether it was necessary for section 75 to be amended, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans said:

    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.[15]

However, he did acknowledge that the situation was more complicated in relation to the second principle of the Covenant, which said that special consideration was appropriate in some cases.

16. The MoD said they had taken legal advice on the question of section 75 being in conflict with the Armed Forces Covenant, and that it did not create a barrier to the sorts of things the MoD is trying to do.[16] Furthermore, Mr Francois said that where there were practical difficulties because of section 75:

    We have sought to try to find practical ways of still delivering support to the armed forces family, via the Armed Forces Covenant at a working level that still assesses their needs and delivers the spirit of the Covenant.[17]

The Northern Ireland Executive Minister, Edwin Poots MLA, explained that, if there was a desire to treat Army personnel better than other groups, it would pose a problem under section 75.[18] He took the view that "no one is supposed to be treated better, and indeed, no one is supposed to be treated worse. Army personnel will not then be treated any worse than anybody else." However, Mr Poots did say that he was willing to take further advice on this issue.[19]

17. We heard from Mr Poots that section 75 required public authorities "to have regard to" the need to promote equality between certain groups, but that it "does not mean that you cannot do certain things".[20] This was a view supported by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which said that section 75 did not "dictate, mandate or prohibit any particular policy provision or policy on the part of any public authority."[21] Mr Poots told us that, potentially, the strict definition that was being used to prevent any preferential treatment to the Armed Forces Community could be tested at some point to see if that was the right definition.[22] The Committee on the Administration of Justice also gave evidence that section 75 was mostly a "policy appraisal tool", requiring public authorities to conduct impact assessments of policies.[23]

18. Speaking about the possibility of conflict between the Armed Forces Covenant and the equality framework in Northern Ireland, Daniel Holder from the Committee on the Administration of Justice told us:

    We do not think there is any real major conflict between dealing appropriately with the welfare, housing and health needs of service personnel with the current equalities framework, including most of the types of measures that would be envisaged under applying this particular Covenant.[24]

He went on to say that he would be concerned if there was a move away from making decisions about the provision of public services on some basis other than "objective need". The possibility of having specific measures in place to support the needs of certain groups would not conflict with the legal framework, because this deals with objective needs, rather than giving preferential treatment. An example given was that of health trusts funding women's groups because those groups had easily identified objective needs, and so there was no conflict with section 75.[25] Brian Gormally, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, also made the point that equality legislation in Northern Ireland was no stricter than in Great Britain.[26]

19. We were also told that if there was a case of a policy giving preferential treatment to the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, although it was possible this might be flagged up during a section 75 policy appraisal, it would be more likely to be challenged under general equalities legislation.[27] One point raised was that the Armed Forces Community was not a protected group under section 75 or under other equality legislation that applies in Northern Ireland.[28]

20. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland told us that there was no conflict between section 75 and the principle that those who have served in the Armed Forces and their families should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens.[29] Evelyn Collins, the Commission's Chief Executive, said that "it is only when the potential for preferential treatment comes into play for members of the Armed Forces that an issue about indirect discrimination may arise."[30] She also explained that the Equality Commission had started discussion with Northern Ireland departments to explain that their view was that "section 75 is not a barrier to the introduction or implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant."[31]

21. In our session with the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, he told us that he had met with party leaderships in Northern Ireland to discuss section 75:

    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.[32]

He went on to confirm that section 75 "is not a hindrance for the Covenant, and that is very important."[33] He also confirmed that "They [the Armed Forces Community] should not be better off, but they should not be worse off."[34]

22. Serious concerns have been raised that the equality framework in Northern Ireland, particularly section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is a barrier to the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant. We have been reassured that the Northern Ireland equality framework does not create a greater barrier to implementation of the Covenant in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. It is important this is understood by those involved in the delivery of services to the Armed Forces Community.

23. We were encouraged to hear that the Equality Commission is in discussion with Northern Ireland departments on this matter. We believe that those bodies or groups that decline to implement any aspect of the Covenant on the basis of section 75 should consider carefully whether they are truly upholding the aims of equality legislation in potentially or actually causing disadvantage to the Armed Forces Community, including partners and children, compared to other groups in society.

Political considerations

24. A number of witnesses said that views of certain political parties in Northern Ireland and the make-up of the Northern Ireland Executive meant that the Armed Forces Covenant could not be taken forward in Northern Ireland. This was acknowledged by the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, who said:

    There are obviously political situations in Northern Ireland that make the delivery sometimes more complicated than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

However, he also spoke positively of discussions he had had with political leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland on the subject of the Armed Forces Covenant. In particular, he told us:

    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.[35]

25. The lack of any contribution from the Northern Ireland Executive to the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant in 2012 was claimed by a number of witnesses to have arisen because of the political situation in Northern Ireland. We were told that the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to invite contributions to the Annual Report, but no reply was received.[36] In relation to future Reports, the MoD Minister told us:

    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.[37]

26. The Northern Ireland Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee said that "local politicians have failed to put any input" into the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant, and that this disadvantaged veterans in Northern Ireland.[38] They argued that there should be a formal duty on the Northern Ireland Executive to contribute to future Annual Reports on the Armed Forces Covenant.[39]

27. When the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 30 October 2012 on that Committee's inquiry into Support for Armed Forces Veterans in Wales, he was asked if he was aware of a different emphasis being put on different policy priorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. His reply was that:

    [...] We have a particular challenge in Northern Ireland because some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities have a particular view of the covenant and what it represents. So in Northern Ireland this area is particularly sensitive and difficult; if we are talking about a scorecard we have to take that into account.

When asked about this point in oral evidence, the Minister told us:

    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.[40]

28. When we took oral evidence from Edwin Poots MLA, Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister for Social Development, we asked whether the Armed Forces Covenant had been discussed by the Northern Ireland Executive, and were told it had not. Mr McCausland said:

    The difficulty is that in Northern Ireland we have a five-party mandatory coalition. [...]There are people within that Executive who would have a very, very different view from the one that I hold regarding the armed forces. They would have a very negative view about the British Army and therefore, for that particular reason, refuse almost to engage on these issues.[41]

He went on to say:

    The way forward on this is much more through individual Departments delivering for ex-service personnel, rather than trying to resolve something that I do not think will be resolved, as those who hold a different view will not change that view. Therefore, the relevant Departments, whether in regard to housing or in regard to health, should move forward on that basis. It is regrettable that it has to be done on that basis, but in practical terms that is where we are.

29. We invited the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give evidence to us in relation to this inquiry but, despite repeated invitations, no representative of the OFMDFM was forthcoming. However, we did receive a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister in which they said they were unable to give evidence on the particular date proposed, but said:

    We understand that Minister Poots and Minister McCausland attended a session on 24 April and gave evidence on our behalf.[42] (Emphasis supplied)

We were also reassured by the evidence from Minister for Northern Ireland, who told us he had spoken to all of the leaders of the Northern Ireland political parties, and had their support "that the armed forces are looked after when they leave the armed forces."[43]

30. We understand the sensitivities of this issue for some members of the Executive, but we were nonetheless very disappointed that the First Minister and deputy First Minister felt unable to give evidence to us as part of our inquiry. We particularly wanted to question them about the contribution of the Northern Ireland Executive to the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant, representation for Northern Ireland on the Covenant Reference Group, and relationships between the Executive and HM Government. We note, however, that their reply to our invitation said that Mr Poots and Mr McCausland gave evidence on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

31. We were encouraged to hear that the Minister of State for Northern Ireland had met with the political leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the Armed Forces Covenant. We agree with him that the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland should not become a "political hot potato".

Personal security

32. A further issue raised with us was the matter of personal security for current and former members of the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland, particularly for those that had served in the UDR or RIR (Home Service). The Regimental Association of the Royal Irish Regiment told us that those personnel had security needs when leaving the Service, which were not addressed, and that there were still threats to serving soldiers and veterans in Northern Ireland.[44] The Royal British Legion flagged security up as one issue that existed in Northern Ireland that would not necessarily be resolved by implementing the Covenant.[45] The MoD's written submission also acknowledged that the current security situation meant members of the Armed Forces Community "will sometimes try and reduce their exposure to a higher level of security risk by concealing their links to the Armed Forces."[46]


9   Ev 111 Back

10   Ev 114 Back

11   Ev 107 Back

12   Qq 105, 372, 393, 461 Back

13   Northern Ireland Act 1998, Section 75 Back

14   Q339 Back

15   Q105 Back

16   Q109 Back

17   Q107 Back

18   Q241 Back

19   Q260 Back

20   Q167 Back

21   Q395 Back

22   Q270 Back

23   Q379 Back

24   Q369 Back

25   Q371 Back

26   Q380 Back

27   Q387 Back

28   Qq 396-397 Back

29   Q393 Back

30   Q393 Back

31   Qq 412-414 Back

32   Q435 Back

33   Q461 Back

34   Q462 Back

35   Q436 Back

36   Q73 Back

37   Q75 Back

38   Q7 Back

39   Qq 10, 42 Back

40   Q116 Back

41   Q132 Back

42   Ev 138 Back

43   Q 436 Back

44   Q304 Back

45   Ev 111 Back

46   Ev 114 Back


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 17 July 2013