14 May 2011

Military covenant ‘to have legal status’

The Coalition could confirm next week that the pact between the Government and its armed forces, which promises a duty of care to troops for the sacrifices they make, is to be enshrined in law.

The Conservatives pledged to “repair the Military Covenant” in their general election manifesto last year.

But the Armed Forces Bill, which is being debated by Parliament, has appeared to stop short of giving the covenant formal legal status, instead allowing the Defence Secretary to make an annual report on the covenant.

However, Defence Minister Andrew Robathan is quoted in today’s Daily Telegraph as saying: “We are putting the military covenant on a statutory basis for the first time.”

We are putting the military covenant on a statutory basis for the first time. Andrew Robathan, Defence Minister

The article explains that the new law would focus on broader principles rather than enshrining specific pledges about individual public services.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister told question time in the Commons: “What is going to happen is that we are going to clearly reference the covenant in law and then the covenant will be published and debated n this House every year.

“It is vital that we are able to update and improve it every year because our military personnel face so many changing circumstances.”

Whitehall lawyers’ concerns over the Government’s legal liability to provide public services are thought to have determined the formulation of the bill.

Why a Military Covenant?
The Military Covenant has one clear principle; members of the armed forces give so much to their country that their country should look after them properly, writes Carl Dinnen for Channel 4 News.

These are people who promise to fight for the UK. They might kill or be killed. They risk serious, life-altering injury. They forego the option of backing out because they don't agree with the mission the government of the day is sending them on.

In return the Government is supposed to make sure they have what they need to do the job: good equipment and training. It is supposed to ensure they have proper medical care and compensation if they are wounded. It should support their families with decent housing and education. It should look after them in their retirement.

But how to put that into law? If the government sets all kinds of standards to acheive it could open itself up to legal action everytime it falls short (and some would say there's already a lot to be done to get things up to scratch). But if the covenant is drawn too vaguely, then what's the point?

Channel 4 News reported in February that there were fears the Government had produced a U-turn on its pre-election promise.

At the time, the Royal British Legion said the Government’s pledge to report annually on its work to deliver the covenant was not enough because it was not subject to independent scrutiny.

The British Legion’s Director General, Chris Simpkins, warned that following the reduction of certain allowances paid to the armed forces, failure by the Government to give a legal commitment to the military covenant could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, resulting in a decline in morale and recruitment.

“If you’re a mother whose 18-year-old son is thinking of joining the armed forces, I suspect you’d quite like to think the nation is going to take care of him or her if they’re harmed as a result of their service life.”