On Tuesday 8 November, the Senedd hosts its annual debate on support for the Armed Forces community. This article gives an overview of support structures for veterans and their families in Wales and discusses developments in this sector since the UK Parliament passed the Armed Forces Act 2021 last December.
The Armed Forces Covenant
Support for the UK Armed Forces community is based on the Armed Forces Covenant. This document sets out the ‘moral obligation’ held by the nation towards members of the three Armed Forces and their families. Initially published as the Military Covenant in 2000, the current Covenant was enshrined in law by the Armed Forces Act 2011. This Act established a legal duty for the UK Government to publish an annual report on the Covenant’s implementation.
The Covenant states that veterans and their families should
[F]ace no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.
These conditions apply across many aspects of life, including education, employment and healthcare.
In practice, the main way the Covenant is delivered is via individual organisations making bespoke pledges to implement its aims. For example, a business might guarantee job interviews to ex-Armed Forces applicants, or offer tailored financial support, such as a mobile provider allowing military families to suspend a contract if deployed overseas. As of October 2022, 9,162 organisations had signed the Covenant.
In addition to the pledge system, the Covenant is delivered through the Armed Forces Covenant Fund, which awards grants to community projects supporting veterans and their families.
Delivering Armed Forces support in Wales
Both local and national government play a role in organising support for the Armed Forces community in Wales.
All 22 local authorities have signed the Covenant and each has appointed an Armed Forces Champion to ensure that veterans’ needs are represented in council business. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) then oversees the delivery of the Covenant across local authority areas. For example, it manages the SSCE Cymru programme, which supports the children of military personnel in education, and in 2017 received money from the Covenant Fund to run the National Wales Project. This project aimed to publicise the Covenant and share effective ways of implementing its principles with councils.
The Welsh Government also contributes to supporting the Armed Forces community. It funds Veterans NHS Wales and Veterans Trauma Network Wales, and since November 2020 has run the A Great Place to Work for Veterans scheme to help veterans find civil service jobs. It also supports seven regional Armed Forces Liaison Officers (AFLOs), who raise awareness of issues affecting veterans with stakeholders and provide advice to individuals. The Welsh Government provides its own advice services too, such as the Wales Resettlement Guide, and offers small grants to veterans’ support groups, like Woody’s Lodge.
The Welsh Government is advised by the Expert Group on the Needs of the Armed Forces Community in Wales and publishes an annual report on Covenant implementation in Wales.
The delivery of the Covenant in Wales has received some criticism. In January 2020, the Welsh Government released a report on the Veterans Scoping Exercise, commissioned as part of the wider UK Strategy for our Veterans that aimed to assess Armed Forces support across the UK. The report noted a widespread lack of awareness around the Covenant in Wales, with veterans complaining that many organisations were not fully upholding their Covenant commitments.
Strengthening support: The Armed Forces Act 2021
On 15 December 2021, the UK Parliament passed the Armed Forces Act 2021. This Act represents a deepening of public commitment to the Armed Forces across the UK, with Section 8 making it the statutory duty of certain public bodies (in Wales this means local authorities, health boards and the governing bodies of maintained schools) to give ‘due regard’ to the Covenant in matters of housing, healthcare and education..
This ‘Covenant Duty’ does not stipulate specific services that must be offered by public bodies. Instead, it places responsibility on local decision-makers to decide how best to implement the Covenant in the three relevant sectors. The Covenant Duty is due to come into effect once the Statutory Guidance supporting the Duty has been approved by both Houses of Parliament following debates this autumn.
As the 2021 Act impacts upon the delivery of devolved services, the Welsh Government tabled a motion seeking legislative consent while the proposed legislation was still at Bill stage. This motion was passed by the Senedd on 23 November 2021.
The Veterans’ Commissioner
Following the 2021 Act, the UK Office for Veterans’ Affairs launched the Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan in January 2022, which aims to boost support for the Armed Forces community across the UK substantially by 2028. The Welsh Government committed to several targets as part of the Action Plan, such as improving data on veterans’ services in Wales and publishing a new Armed Forces Covenant, Healthcare Priority for Veterans Guidance.
Another key aspect of the Action Plan is the appointment of a Veterans’ Commissioner for Wales. Accountable to the UK Government, the Commissioner’s role is to ‘represent the views of … veterans and ensure services in their nation are the best they can be’. In effect, the Commissioner will be able to monitor how stakeholders in Wales respond to veterans’ needs and ensure that support provided for the Welsh Armed Forces community matches that of the other UK nations.
The decision to appoint a Commissioner provoked some controversy in the Senedd. Shortly before the 2021 Act received Royal Assent, the First Minister remarked that the decision to appoint a Commissioner was ‘announced without any prior discussion or notification with the Welsh Government’.
On 1 March 2022, former Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart MP announced the appointment of Colonel James Phillips as Veterans’ Commissioner for Wales.
Following his appointment, Deputy Minister for Social Partnership Hannah Blythyn MS welcomed Col. Phillips and committed to collaborating with him on veterans’ affairs in Wales.
Since the Commissioner began work in June, there have been some developments in support for the Welsh Armed Forces community. These include the launch of the WLGA’s new Armed Forces Friendly Schools Cymru award system and the continuation of free swimming to Armed Forces members until at least 2025.
On 5 October, the Deputy Minister commented that she had met the Commissioner several times and begun working with him as part of the Expert Group. She also noted that arrangements were in place for the Commissioner to meet Welsh Government officials to discuss how veterans’ support in devolved matters is delivered. However, the Deputy Minister remarked that it was still too early to make a substantial report on her collaboration with the Commissioner.
The Welsh Government published its Armed Forces Covenant report for 2021 on 28 October 2022. As well as providing an update on Covenant implementation the report highlights potential developments that may affect how support for the Armed Forces community is delivered in future, including the UK military’s involvement in Ukraine and increased cost of living pressures on Armed Forces families.
Article by Samuel Young, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament
Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Samuel Young by the AHRC South West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership which enabled this Research Article to be completed.