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


5  Future progress

72. Our inquiry has identified a number of areas where progress could be made on improving support for the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, and also ways in which HM Government could better engage with the Northern Ireland Executive on the Armed Forces Covenant. We explore these below.

Improved engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive

73. Although the Northern Ireland Executive had not discussed the Armed Forces Covenant collectively, the evidence we have received showed that a number of Northern Ireland Departments were engaged with both the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland and with HM Government.

74. In particular, the statements by Edwin Poots MLA, Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister for Social Development, that they would be happy to respond to a request to contribute to future Annual Reports on the Armed Forces Covenant were extremely encouraging.[128] The Minister of State for Northern Ireland said he believed that engaging with individual ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive was the way to move forward on this issue, and that he was planning to write to individual ministers to gauge their willingness to contribute.[129]

75. We are grateful to Mr Poots and to Mr McCausland for giving evidence to us on this inquiry, and particularly welcome their statements that they would be happy to contribute to future Annual Reports on the Armed Forces Covenant. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence approach individual Ministers of Northern Ireland departments when seeking responses from the devolved administrations for future Annual Reports. This would enable the Secretary of State for Defence to report on the at least some of the areas where progress had been made and also areas where more needed to be done.

76. We also questioned the Northern Ireland ministers on the possibility of appointing an Armed Forces Advocate, similar to that appointed by the Welsh and the Scottish Governments, who could take responsibility for policy affecting the Armed Forces Community, and also represent Northern Ireland on the Covenant Reference Group. Mr Poots said that it might be possible to "appoint an armed forces advocate from a single Department, which other Departments could then use to support them in the work that they do."[130]

77. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland told us that HM Government would very much like to see a Northern Ireland Executive representative on the Covenant Reference Group, and whether this was a particular person appointed as an advocate, or various individuals from different Northern Ireland departments, their contribution would be welcome. The MoD also said that having Armed Forces advocates appointed by the Scottish and the Welsh Governments made liaison on issues affecting the Armed Forces easier, but that ultimately such an appointment was a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.[131]

78. The possibility of a Northern Ireland department appointing an Armed Forces advocate is extremely welcome. The advocate could work with other Northern Ireland departments on policy affecting the Armed Forces Community, and engage with HM Government and the Covenant Reference Group to ensure the work of the Northern Ireland Executive in this area is promoted. We appreciate that the appointment of such an individual is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we urge the NIO and the MoD to continue to work with the Executive towards such an appointment.

Role of HM Government

79. The written evidence from the Royal British Legion made the case that in situations where a former member of the Armed Forces person was facing particular difficulty, it would be beneficial to have some means whereby they could raise their concerns.[132] The Minister of State for Northern Ireland told us that it would soon be possible to contact a senior official at the Northern Ireland Office regarding any concerns the Armed Forces Community had about the level of support available, and that this official would be responsible for following up on any problems that were raised. [133]

80. In its written evidence, the Northern Ireland Office also set out areas of difference in how the Armed Forces Covenant had been applied in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, and further action HM Government planned to take, where appropriate.[134] These included:

·  Provision of IVF treatment: NI currently provides only one round of IVF treatment, due to budgetary constraints. The NIO's memorandum stated:

    If the fewer number of cycles in NI proves to be an enduring problem, officials will explore if provision can be funded/provided elsewhere, for example private treatment funded by a charity or exceptionally, for a veteran, treatment at the MOD facility within the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.[135]

·  Priority for social housing: in England, Scotland and Wales many local authorities award priority to members of the Armed Forces applying for social housing. This was not the case in Northern Ireland. The NIO's memorandum stated that no further action on this was proposed, as "homelessness of ex-Servicemen/women is not considered an issue."[136]

·  Further and Higher Education Scheme: this scheme paid the tuition fees of Service leavers living in England, Scotland and Wales when they study for a first full Level 3 qualification, a first undergraduate or foundation degree, or a first HNC or HND. No provision is made at present in Northern Ireland. The NIO's memorandum stated that they understood this matter to be under consideration by the Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Learning.[137]

·  Community Covenant Grants: as no local authorities in Northern Ireland had signed up to Community Covenant, they were not able to apply for grants under the Community Covenant Grant Scheme. The NIO's memorandum stated that an alternative system has been established under which applications can be submitted via 38 (Irish) Brigade.[138]

81. We welcome the commitment which the Northern Ireland Office has shown to implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, by establishing the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum, establishing a system whereby members for the Armed Forces Community may raise concerns, and setting out plans for addressing shortfalls in current provisions. We ask to be kept updated of progress on implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, so that we can pursue areas where more needs to be done.

Projects to support the Armed Forces Community

82. A number of witnesses, and those we met with during our visit to Washington DC, also raised specific areas where projects could be put in place in Northern Ireland to support the Armed Forces Community. These included:

·  Drop-in centres for ex-service personnel to give advice on benefits, job prospects and other matters;[139]

·  Improved provision of information, and

·  Veterans Treatment Courts.

DROP-IN CENTRES

83. A number of witnesses suggested that having drop-in centres where veterans could access the full range of advice and support available to them at one location would be a significant benefit. There is currently a similar centre in Scotland, the Veterans First Point Centre in Edinburgh, which provides a "one-stop shop for veterans and their families living in Lothian".[140] The scheme is funded by the Scottish Government and NHS Lothian, and has a budget of around £260,000 a year.

84. When asked about the feasibility of a similar arrangement in Northern Ireland, Rear Admiral Williams told us that the Veterans First Point Centre 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."[141] However, Mr Francois made the point that the project in Edinburgh was funded by the Scottish Government in co-operation with NHS Lothian, and it was not directly funded by the MoD.[142]

85. The Royal British Legion gave evidence that as part of their restructuring they would be opening 16 area offices across the UK, one of which would be in Belfast, which would be "a local drop­in or pop­in type centre, a one­stop shop, if you like, where somebody can call in, get advice and get support."[143]

86. There would clearly be a benefit in having a centre, or centres, where members of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland could access the full range of support and advice available to them. We recommend that HM Government works with the Northern Ireland Executive and Armed Forces organisations operating in Northern Ireland to establish how this might best be done, and how such a scheme could be funded.

PROVISION OF INFORMATION

87. We understand that the first output from the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum set up by the Minister of State for Northern Ireland will be a pamphlet which details the responsibilities of every charitable organisation and every Government agency, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and other such organisations, and which will be made widely available.[144]

88. During our recent meeting in Washington DC with the Department of Veterans Affairs, we were told about a book of Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors which is issued to all Service Personnel when they leave military service. The book outlines the full range of benefits and services veterans are entitled to in the US, and is updated on an annual basis. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland said that it would be "really useful" for the pamphlet the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum was producing to be used for a similar purpose.[145]

89. We believe that there are significant benefits to improving the level of information provided to the Armed Forces Community about the support available to them. The pamphlet that is being produced by the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum is a good first step, and we recommend that this is distributed to all service-leavers establishing themselves in Northern Ireland. We also recommend that the MoD consider producing a comprehensive guide to benefits, in line with that issued to all service-leavers in the US.

VETERANS TREATMENT COURTS

90. During our meetings in Washington DC, we met with Rob McDonald, a Criminal Justice Consultant working for a Veterans Treatment Court in Little Rock, Arkansas. These courts are part of the normal United States legal system, but deal exclusively with minor offences involving veterans. Those involved in the Veterans Treatment Courts have an understanding of the problems that veterans of the Armed Forces may be dealing with, and the courts also provide support in accessing benefits and treatment for problems such as mental health problems. When questioned on the possibility of a similar system being trialled in the UK, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland told us that did not see the need, but he would speak to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about it.[146]

91. We recommend that HM Government investigates the specific circumstances of veterans coming before the criminal justice system, and considers how their cases can be best dealt with.

INSURANCE COVER

92. In addition to the provision of public services, the Armed Forces Covenant also relates to "commercial services" and "private organisations", and two aspects of this we took evidence on was difficulties the Armed Forces Community faced in accessing certain types of insurance, and also the possibility of reducing the cost of the MoD's Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. Christopher Jordan, Managing Director of Bureau Insurance, an insurance organisation that specialises in "uncomfortable risks", told us that members of the Armed Forces found life insurance and personal accident insurance more difficult and more expensive to access.[147] When applying for these products, insurance companies will either exclude the "war risk" of serving soldiers,[148] or quote for it at a very high margin.[149] Mr Jordan told us about plans to establish a not-for-profit insurance company that would be able provide insurance products to members of the Armed Forces Community with reduced premiums.

93. We were also told about the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS) (previously War Disablement Pension), the MoD scheme which provides cover for members of the Armed Forces who are injured, disabled or bereaved as a result of service. The scheme provides lump sum payments of up to £570,000 for pain and suffering in relation to injuries and illnesses, and also Guaranteed Income Payments for the most serious injuries and illnesses, which can provide an income stream of over £1 million over a lifetime. Mr Jordan said that the AFCS was a very good scheme, and very worthwhile to the Armed Forces,[150] but that given the maximum level of compensation was around £1.5 million, members of the Armed Forces might want to top that up through life insurance or personal accident insurance. He also said that there were possible cost savings if the AFCS was administered by the insurance industry on behalf of the MoD. This could "bring the insurance industry's expertise to bear on administration", and "[look] at lawyer-led claims and whether those are being inflated."[151]

Community Covenants

94. In addition to the action taken by HM Government and the devolved administrations in implementing the Armed Forces Covenant, many local authorities across GB have also signed up to "Community Covenants". These are intended to complement, at a local level, the Armed Forces Covenant. The aims of the Armed Forces Community covenant are to:

·  encourage local communities to support the armed forces community in their areas nurture public understanding and awareness among the public of issues affecting the armed forces community;

·  recognise and remember the sacrifices faced by the Armed Forces Community;

·  encourage activities which help to integrate the Armed Forces Community into local life, and

·  to encourage the Armed Forces Community to help and support the wider community, whether through participation in events and joint projects, or other forms of engagement.[152]

As of June 2013, 291 local authorities in England had signed up to the Community Covenant, with 15 in Wales and all 32 of the local authorities in Scotland , but none in Northern Ireland.

95. The Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans told us that he would "like to see local authorities in Northern Ireland, where they want to, adopting a Community Covenant," but that pressing for this from London was not the best way of achieving this.[153] However, there could be a case for the Northern Ireland Executive to engage with local authorities that could be interested in signing up to Community Covenants.

Debate on the Armed Forces Covenant

96. A number of witnesses raised the point that the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant had not been debated on the floor of the House.[154] Peter Poole of Combat Stress in particular said that such a debate should be held, and he had some misgivings about the fact it had not been already.

  1. There has not yet been a debate in the House on the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant. This may be an oversight, but we look forward to the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant being debated in the House at an early opportunity and, thereafter, on an annual basis.



128   Qq 186-7 Back

129   Q439 Back

130   Q192 Back

131   Q96 Back

132   Ev 111 Back

133   Q423 Back

134   Ev 136 Back

135   Ibid Back

136   Ibid Back

137   Ev 136 Back

138   Ibid Back

139   Q48 Back

140   http://www.veteransfirstpoint.org.uk/ Back

141   Q104 Back

142   Ibid Back

143   Q136 Back

144   Q357 Back

145   Q426 Back

146   Qq 464-6 Back

147   Q470 Back

148   War risk being cover during deployment. Back

149   Q470 Back

150   Q480 Back

151   Q480 Back

152   https://www.gov.uk/armed-forces-community-covenant Back

153   Q71 Back

154   Q182, Q188 Back


 
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Prepared 17 July 2013