Written evidence submitted by The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
- The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) represents the 22 local authorities in Wales, and the three national park authorities and three fire and rescue authorities are associate members.
- The WLGA is a politically led cross-party organisation, with the leaders from all local authorities determining policy through the Executive Board and the wider WLGA Council. The WLGA also appoints senior members as Spokespersons and Deputy Spokespersons to provide a national lead on policy matters on behalf of local government.
- The WLGA works closely with and is often advised by professional advisors and professional associations from local government, however, the WLGA is the representative body for local government and provides the collective, political voice of local government in Wales.
ARMED FORCES BILL
- The WLGA welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee in support of the evidence provided by our Deputy Community Safety Spokesperson, Cllr Maureen Webber, at the oral evidence session held on 10 March 2021.
- Our evidence focuses on clause 8 of the Armed Forces Bill as this is the part of the Bill, which deals with the Armed Forces Covenant and the proposed new duty, which is of most relevance to local authorities.
ARMED FORCES COVENANT
Is the ‘duty to have due regard’ the appropriate mechanism to further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law? What alternative mechanisms could be used?
- The WLGA supports the aim of the Bill to help ensure Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged by their service when accessing key public services.
- The further enshrinement of the Armed Forces Covenant into law is an opportunity to build upon work councils are already leading to help and support serving personnel, veterans, and their families to have the same equality of access to public services as their civilian counterparts.
- This includes in the areas of focus in the Bill – housing, education and healthcare. Some local Covenant projects go beyond this, for example to cover employment, welfare, and transport. Councils play a key role in the provision or commissioning of these services with partners and joining-up support around the needs of an individual and their family.
- Local government in Wales has fully embraced the Armed Forces agenda. All 22 local authorities were early signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant and each local authority has an elected Armed Forces Champion (and an identified lead officer) to help imbed the Covenant across local services, galvanizing partners and providing challenge.
- All local authorities in Wales also have access to a regional Armed Forces Liaison Officer (AFLO). The AFLOs play a vital role in support councils in delivering covenant commitments and further embedding them across local authority services, sharing practice and initiatives among themselves and with local authorities. These posts were initially funded by the Covenant Fund but have been subsequently funded by Welsh Government, which is testament to their positive impact and the commitment to the Armed Forces agenda in Wales.
- In 2017 the WLGA also received funding from the Covenant Fund to undertake a national project which aimed to:
- raise awareness of the Armed Forces Covenant and the issues affecting the Armed Forces Community in Wales;
- improve the availability of information about the Armed Forces Covenant for the Armed Forces Community in Wales;
- improve communications relating to the Armed Forces Covenant in Wales made by/between local authorities; and
- promote and share best practice.
The project involved the development of several new resources aimed at local authorities including a microsite; a training package and it also saw the establishment of the WLGA Armed Forces Network. The Network is made up of Armed Forces Champions and lead officers from the 22 local authorities in Wales and shares good practice to help councils improve how they support the Armed Forces community.
- In partnership with Welsh Government, the WLGA has also worked with local authorities over the past year to develop a 5 year timetable for the hosting of a national Armed Force Day n Wales from 2022-26.
- The WLGA also hosts the Supporting Service Children in Education Cymru Programme (SSCE Cymru.) Supporting Service Children in Education (SSCE) Cymru is a Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) programme initially funded by the MOD’s Education Support Fund and funded by Welsh Government from 2019. Since the programme began in 2014 SSCE Cymru has worked with schools, children and young people, Local authorities, Welsh Government, education professionals, Armed Forces families and support organisations to gather their views and experiences, build networks across Wales and raise awareness and understanding of the specific needs and experiences of children of Armed Forces personnel. SSCE Cymru has developed guidance and digital resources for schools and families, hosted conferences and stakeholder days and commissioned research to better understand the needs of Service children in education. Further information is available on the SSCE website: SSCE Cymru :: Supporting Service Children in Education Wales website
- Additionally, in collaboration with 160th (Welsh) Brigade, the WLGA secured funding from the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust to appoint four Regional School Liaison Officers (RSLOs) for a two-year project starting in September 2020. Hosted by four lead local authorities, the Isle of Anglesey, Newport, Pembrokeshire and the Vale of Glamorgan, the RSLOs work regionally and are each responsible for the activities in five/six local authorities.
- In partnership with Welsh Government, the WLGA has also worked with local authorities over the past year to develop a 5 year timetable for the hosting of national Armed Force Day in Wales from 2022-26.
- All the above has been achieved without the need for legislation. The WLGA is therefore concerned about the lack of detail currently available about the proposed duty on councils to have due regard to the Covenant principles in the specified service areas. Further information about the specific expectations and potential implications would be welcomed.
- Additionally, significant aspects of the Bill relate to devolved matters and it is currently unclear how this will be addressed moving forward. As such we urge the UK Government to continue to engage with Welsh Government on those aspects of the Bill that refer to devolved matters in a timely manner in order that the implementation of the Bill in Wales pays due regard to the devolved context, clarifying expectations for devolved bodies.
Is the focus on healthcare, education, and housing matters appropriate? Could this have a detrimental impact on other areas of the Armed Forces Covenant?
- The focus on the areas of housing, health and education are supported by the WLGA as these are some of the areas which have the biggest impact on members of the Armed Forces community and where the majority of inquiries are made.
- Employment and financial issues are also areas of significant concern/need. Depending on local needs and circumstances, local covenant commitments reflect these wider policy areas.
- It will be important that local covenant commitments continue to be flexible and reflect local needs and circumstances as identified by members of the Armed Forces Community.
- Local authorities will want to honour their local Covenant commitments in full and not just those aspects that will be enshrined into law by the Armed Forces Covenant Bill. However, given limited financial resources, there is a risk that there will be greater focus on the policy areas covered by the Bill. The best way to guard against this risk is to fully and sustainably fund councils so that they can honour all their local Covenant commitments.
Are the specified persons and bodies proscribed in the Bill sufficient or should these be expanded?
- It is perhaps not the role of the WLGA to comment as to whether or not other persons or bodies such as the UK and Welsh Governments should also be subject to the duty.
- Given the role that the UK Government and Welsh Government play in setting national and strategic policy, which directly impacts how local services operate, there would perhaps be merit in extending the duty in this manner. Effective leadership will be an important aspect in ensuring successful implementation of the Bill/Act.
- There will need to be clear communication with members of the armed forces communities about what is in and out of scope of the legislation, otherwise there is a risk of raising expectations and creating confusion.
- An assessment of the Bill’s application to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in respect of the Armed Forces Covenant and the Secretary of State’s duty to consult the devolved administrations.
- As previously stated, the policy areas specified in the Bill are policy matters which are devolved to the Welsh Government. It is imperative that there is timely and constructive
engagement between the UK and Welsh administrations in order to consider how the provisions in the Bill will be implemented in the devolved context and ensure appropriate guidance is provided, reflecting Welsh legislation as appropriate.
- An assessment of the power of the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the duties imposed by the Bill.
- We welcome the Government’s commitment to working with councils to develop the statutory guidance that will underpin the new statutory duty. This is an opportunity to embed a shared approach that will build upon what councils and local partners have already achieved, provide clarity about the scope of the statutory duty, further detail about what the duty means in practice and its implications for partnership working, recognising local flexibility to deliver Covenant pledges and support innovative approaches.
- Due to the devolved context in Wales it will be vital that this guidance reflects the different context and legislation in Wales. It will be imperative that the guidance takes account of different legal systems and legislation in place (such as the Future Generations Act, Housing Act) that it fully recognizes the devolved context in Wales. Timely engagement between the UK and Welsh Governments will be key.
An assessment of the power of the Secretary of State to make regulations to widen the duties in the Bill by specifying additional persons or bodies to be subject to those duties and to specify additional functions (areas other than healthcare, housing and education) in which the duty may apply.
- The Bill enables the Secretary of State to use regulations to add additional persons or bodies, and additional functions, to which the duty to have due regard will apply, beyond healthcare, housing and education. In this situation, we welcome the commitment to consult with stakeholders. Any further extension may have resource implications for councils, which will need to be fully identified and funded.
An assessment of the enforcement of the ‘duty to have due regard’ and the impact on enforcement bodies such as relevant Ombudsmen.
- The WLGA welcomes the UK Government’s intention not to prescribe outcomes for local government but to allow local flexibility.
- We are also interested to hear about plans for any enforcement of the new legislation, including whether there is a role for the Public Services Ombudsman.
- Currently the Annual Covenant Report to Government provides an analysis of how covenant commitments are being delivered.
- Judicial Review must be reserved for only the most serious breaches and where previous actions have not resolved the matter.
- There are other areas of policy with a duty to have due regard from which we can learn. The Equality Act 2010 placed a general equality duty on public authorities to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination; advance equality of opportunity; and foster good relations – when making decisions and setting policies.
- Much can be learned about how the general equality duty is applied by public bodies and how this could be transferred when considering the Armed Forces Community, including the provision of advice and guidance. Other examples are also available, such as the Prevent duty.
What are the resource implications of these measures and how will success be measured?
- The WLGA are concerned about the lack of detail currently available about the proposed duty on councils to have due regard to the Covenant principles in the specified service areas and the potential implications. Whilst many councils are already leading comprehensive approaches to local Covenant delivery, the lack of detail means that it is difficult to accurately identify new burdens or their costs, which must be fully funded by Government and kept under regular review.
- Covenant Fund grants have provided a welcome boost to local Covenant projects particularly in Wales. However, its short-term and limited nature means that it cannot fully fund the local capacity needed to sustainably drive forward the Covenant given the other funding pressures local government faces.
- A key challenge to the sustainability of local Covenant projects is the cost pressures facing local government, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Local government must be fully and sustainably funded, so that councils can continue to honour their local Covenant commitments in full and not just those aspects that will be enshrined into law by the Armed Forces Covenant Bill.
Whether the provisions impact differently on Serving personnel (both Regulars and Reservists), veterans, and their families?
- The WLGA supports improving access to public services to all members of the Armed Forces Community and councils across Wales are committed to providing services to all members of the Armed Forces Community.
- The Bill will likely impact on service personnel and veterans in different ways. For example, local authority housing provision and/or support will likely benefit veterans and those who have recently left service rather than those currently in service. Similarly, in education it will be the children and families who benefit directly. However, local covenant commitments as they currently stand and when enshrined in law will always have the overarching aim of supporting all members of the Armed Forces Community.
- The Association hopes that the evidence provided above is helpful. If you would like any further information please contact us.
22 March 2021
Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill