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


Conclusions and recommendations


The Armed Forces Covenant

1.  We unreservedly endorse the key principles of the Armed Forces Covenant:

·  members of the Armed Forces Community should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens, and

·  special consideration may be appropriate in some cases. (Paragraph 2)

Implementation across the UK

2.  We welcome the work undertaken by the Scottish and the Welsh Governments on implementing the Armed Forces Covenant in Scotland and in Wales, in particular the comprehensive reports they have published on Government support available to the Armed Forces Community. We regret, as it would appear does the Ministry of Defence, that the Northern Ireland Executive has not yet published a similar report. (Paragraph 10)

Barriers to implementation in Northern Ireland

3.  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. (Paragraph 12)

4.  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. (Paragraph 22)

5.  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. (Paragraph 23)

6.  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. (Paragraph 30)

7.  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". (Paragraph 31)

The current situation in Northern Ireland

8.  We welcome the work undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence, at the Prime Minister's direction, to assess any shortfall in Covenant provision in Northern Ireland. It is vital that any such shortfalls are addressed, whether this is by the Northern Ireland Executive or HM Government. We recommend that the MoD respond to any identified needs of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, and report on how these will be met. (Paragraph 38)

9.  The Armed Forces charities operating in Northern Ireland are essential to the effective support of the Armed Forces Community, and we applaud the efforts of all those working in the Armed Forces voluntary sector. We welcome the establishment of the Northern Ireland Veterans Forum, which has brought together many of the key stakeholders. We would urge this forum to address concerns that we heard regarding a lack of over-arching co-ordination and co-operation between the many Armed Forces organisations operating in Northern Ireland. (Paragraph 43)

10.  We welcome the protocol for ensuring equitable access to health and social care services for the Armed Forces published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in 2009, and also the Armed Forces Liaison Forum which was established to support this protocol. This has established an important mechanism enabling the Armed Forces Community to engage with a department of the Northern Ireland Executive on issues and policies affecting them. We believe that other departments might usefully consider establishing similar forums on areas of policy particularly relevant to the Armed Forces Community. (Paragraph 48)

11.  We welcome the suggestion by Mr Poots and Mr McCausland that a ministerial sub-group be established within the Northern Ireland Executive to improve co-ordination between Northern Ireland departments on policy affecting the Armed Forces. Clearly, this is a matter that is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive but, nonetheless, we hope that such a group will be established without delay to further the work being done by Northern Ireland Departments. (Paragraph 51)

12.  We strongly recommend that HM Government gives serious consideration to a more robust mental health support team for veterans in Northern Ireland, including the appointment of a dedicated psychiatrist. (Paragraph 60)

13.  There are a number of cases where the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland does not receive the same level of benefits in relation to health, housing and education as that community in Great Britain. However, we are encouraged that HM Government is working with the relevant Northern Ireland departments to resolve these disparities, where possible, and that in general there is no serious material disadvantage to the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland under current arrangements. (Paragraph 63)

14.  A number of witnesses have made the case that veterans in Northern Ireland could benefit from the expansion of the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish (Home Service) Regiment Aftercare Service. We appreciate the argument that this is a bespoke service tailored to the specific needs of units that were based and served in Northern Ireland, but feel there could be value in extending the services it offered more widely where, for example, there is best practice which would benefit other veterans. We recommend that the MoD assesses the benefits of extending the Aftercare Service to all veterans based in Northern Ireland, and report back to us. (Paragraph 68)

Future progress

15.  We are grateful to Mr Edwin Poots and to Mr Nelson 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. (Paragraph 75)

16.  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. (Paragraph 78)

17.  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. (Paragraph 81)

18.  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. (Paragraph 86)

19.  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. (Paragraph 89)

20.  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. (Paragraph 91)

21.  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. (Paragraph 97)



 
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Prepared 17 July 2013