It’s 10 years since the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant were enshrined in UK law. As the Senedd debates remembering and supporting our Armed Forces community in Wales, this article highlights the importance of the Covenant, what it involves and how it affects serving personnel, veterans and their families in Wales.
A Moral Obligation
The Armed Forces Covenant, is defined as the moral obligation between the nation and members of the Naval Service, the Army, Royal Air Force, and their families. The Covenant currently supports 3,300 serving personnel and approximately 140,000 veterans across Wales.
The Covenant was originally introduced as the Military Covenant in 2000. It referred to the mutual obligations between the UK Government and its Armed Forces. In 2011, the Armed Forces Covenant (as it then became known) was formally enshrined in law as part of the Armed Forces Act 2011.
The covenant was established with two key underlying principles:
- to prevent anyone who serves or has served in the Armed Forces being disadvantaged compared to other citizens when receiving public or commercial services; and
- that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most such as the injured or bereaved.
The Armed Forces Act 2011 established a legal requirement for an annual Armed Forces Covenant report, to be published by the UK Government. The report sets out how service personnel and veterans are being supported. This allowed the UK Parliament and the public to see how the Covenant was being used to directly support the armed forces community.
How does the Covenant work?
The Covenant pledges support across a range of areas including education, access to healthcare, starting a new career and financial assistance.
Whether someone is leaving the military and wants to start a new career or an injured serviceperson needs help with accessing the appropriate physical or mental healthcare; the Covenant is in place to ensure they are not disadvantaged. It can provide funding for extra support that may be required for children of service personnel or reduce the financial burdens that may be associated with serving overseas, both examples of the Covenant in action.
Organisations can sign up to the Covenant by making tailored pledges, which could include things like specific services or discounts. For instance, a pledge to guarantee veterans a job interview should they fulfil the criteria in the case of a recruitment agency, or a school may pledge to provide extra support to children of service personnel around deployment. These pledges may also include directly improving their own and their customers understanding of the different needs of service personnel.
The 2020 UK Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report notes over 5,800 organisations had signed the Covenant. It also states that £123 million has been invested into improvements and modernisations of Service Family Accommodation and 102 military charities had been awarded a total of £6 million to enable them to continue their work during the COVID pandemic.
The Covenant in the community
In addition to private and public organisations, there are a number of community projects across the UK that support the Armed Forces community. These are funded through the Armed Forces Covenant Fund, which receives £10 million a year and was established to fund programs across four key themes:
- Non-core healthcare services for veterans
- Removing barriers to family life
- Extra support, both in and after Service, for those that need help.
- Measures to integrate military and civilian communities and allow the Armed Force community to participate as citizens.
Over the period 2015 to 2020, as part of the Local Grants Programme, the Covenant Fund Trust made 718 awards worth £11.6 million. These grants of up to £20,000 were to support community integration services and included social activities for older people and veterans, creative music sessions for forces families and health-related projects.
The Covenant in Wales
All 22 local authorities in Wales have signed up to the Covenant; with each authority having an Armed Forces Champion, who is an elected member, to promote the interests of the Armed Forces community. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) have also developed the National Wales Project, highlighting the variety of work being undertaken by different local authorities across Wales as part of the Covenant.
The Welsh Government published its Armed Forces Covenant annual report for 2020, earlier this year. The report described key achievements over 10 years in Wales, including, amongst others:
- Increased funding provision for Veterans NHS Wales, which enables veterans with mental health issues to receive appropriate support.
- Funding the Armed Forces Liaison Officers until 2023 to embed Covenant guidelines in Local Authorities across Wales.
Is there room for improvement?
The Armed Forces Expert Group, which advises on how public services can meet the needs of the armed forces community, welcomed the Welsh Government’s report and progress under the Covenant. However the group also submitted 8 key priorities for the Welsh Government to address during this Senedd term. These include:
- developing a national plan to implement changes from the Armed Forces Act
- committing to permanently fund the supporting service children in education Wales fund; and
- extending housing priority to cover 5 years post leaving military service.
However, there are still concerns regarding the impact of the Covenant. The Veterans Scoping Exercise in Wales (2020) found a key theme from respondents was the Covenant not being implemented or upheld appropriately. This ranged from a lack of awareness of the Covenant itself to a lack of provision in terms of housing for veterans. On publication of the scoping exercise the then Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Hannah Blythyn, said it:
…will inform how we target future support and ultimately seeks to improve the approach this Government and partner organisations will take to supporting our veterans and Armed Forces Communities…
The 2021 Autumn budget included funding to establish the first Veterans Commissioner for Wales. The role will work to improve the lives and opportunities of the Welsh veteran’s community whilst recognising their contribution to UK Armed Forces. Consequently, this could increase visibility of the Covenant and address the concerns of the Armed Forces community in Wales that the Covenant is not being implemented appropriately.
Strengthening the Covenant
The UK Government’s Armed Forces Bill 2021 will introduce a statutory duty on certain public bodies to have due regard to the Covenant’s principles when they carry out functions in housing, healthcare and education. The aim of this is to not only raise awareness of the Covenant but to also to improve delivery of pledges. However, stakeholders have called for the Bill to go further and also include, among other areas, employment, social care and pensions under its scope.
Given the proposals will affect devolved policy areas, the Welsh Government has sought the Senedd’s legislative consent for the Bill and has tabled two Legislative Consent Memoranda. A Government debate is scheduled for Tuesday 9 November on remembering and supporting the Armed Forces community in Wales. The legislative changes will further enshrine the Covenant into UK law, the hope from the UK Government is that it will also preserve the duty of care between the nation and the Armed Forces community.
Article by Božo Lugonja, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament