Written evidence submitted by the Royal Caledonian Education Trust to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
About the Royal Caledonian Education Trust
The Royal Caledonian Education Trust (RCET) is Scotland’s Armed Forces children’s charity. We seek a world where Armed Forces children and young people in Scotland are enabled to reach their full potential and are absolutely committed to giving Armed Forces children and young people every opportunity to achieve and thrive. We work in partnership with individuals, groups, government, educational, military, and other institutions to respond to the education, training, and wellbeing needs of Scotland’s Armed Forces children and young people by delivering direct services, providing financial assistance, providing training and resources, listening to and advocating on behalf of children and young people, raising awareness and influencing policy. Our response to this call for evidence is informed by this wide-ranging work.
Responses to specific consultation questions
RCET believes the ‘duty to have due regard’ is an appropriate mechanism to further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law. Those bodies subject to the duty will be required to demonstrate that they have considered the principles of the Covenant in the exercise of their functions in the specified policy areas. We believe this will help to raise awareness and understanding of the Armed Forces Covenant amongst decision-makers. We further hope that this will serve to ensure a proactive approach to consideration of the Covenant principles which will positively impact on the Armed Forces community. We would expect that the Statutory Guidance will give further clarity around how the ‘duty to have due regard’ will work in practice and would therefore urge that it be published as a matter of urgency to allow effective and meaningful scrutiny of the Bill.
Issues around education and health are those that RCET hear of most regularly through our direct work with children and young people in Armed Forces families. For example, the children and young people we work with have told us that the high levels of mobility associated with Armed Forces life and coping with parental employment can pose significant challenges in terms of their education and mental health and wellbeing. Particular concerns have been raised by young people around accessing health services including difficulties of losing their place on a waiting list when relocating and difficulties for those at boarding school in switching between GPs between term and holiday times. It is important to note that children and young people with additional support needs may face particular challenges in education and health experiencing discontinuity in the provision of support for both their educational and healthcare needs. As such, the inclusion of education and healthcare in the Bill is a very welcome step that we hope will have a tangible positive impact for children and young people.
However, the Bill is undoubtedly limited in applying to only healthcare, education, and housing matters and RCET share the concerns of other third sector organisations around the limited scope of the Bill in terms of the policy areas it covers. The Armed Forces community can potentially experience disadvantage across many policy areas including for example, employment, social care, and immigration. From our perspective inclusion of such wider issues is vital to supporting the wellbeing of children and young people in Armed Forces families as any difficulties experienced by the wider family unit will almost certainly have an impact on children and young people. In applying to only a limited number of policy areas, we believe there is a very real risk that a two-tier level of protection will emerge with the specified areas of education, healthcare and housing receiving enhanced levels of attention and protection perhaps at the expense of other equally important issues. RCET therefore believes the scope of the Bill should be extended to cover all the functions of the persons and bodies to which it applies.
RCET do not feel the specified persons and bodies proscribed in the Bill are sufficient. We believe that the Bill should apply to all public bodies including, the UK Government and the devolved administrations. The Armed Forces community access public services provided at national, devolved, regional, and local levels. RCET believe it is crucial that the UK Government and devolved administrations are subject to the same legal standard as the other public bodies currently included in the Bill. This will help ensure consistency in the protection offered by the Covenant. Importantly, many of the policy areas in which the Armed Forces community may experience disadvantage fall within the responsibility of the UK Government and the devolved administrations. It is vital that policy development in these areas is subject to the ‘duty to have due regard’ to ensure the principles of the Covenant are truly respected and protected at all levels.
In addition, given the importance of education and learning as an area where Armed Forces children and young people may experience disadvantage associated with Armed Forces life, we believe consideration should be given to extending the Bill to cover further and higher education institutions.
We welcome the duty on the Secretary of State to consult with the devolved administrations in relation to specified matters, including the issuing of statutory guidance, and exercise of the power 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 in which the duty may apply. Given the devolved nature of the policy matters within the scope of the Bill it is crucial that there is close collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved administrations to help ensure consistency across the four nations whilst still respecting the devolved contexts.
Given that many areas of the Bill currently lack specific detail including for example, the application of the ‘duty to have due regard’ and enforcement of this duty, the Statutory Guidance will be vital to understanding how the Bill will work in practice. We therefore reiterate our call that the Statutory Guidance be published as a matter of urgency to allow for informed and effective scrutiny of the Bill.
Due to the devolved nature of the policy matters within the scope of the Bill, we welcome the duty on the Secretary of State to consult with the devolved administrations in relation to the issuing of such guidance. As the Bill does not provide powers for the devolved administrations to draw up their own guidance, it is extremely important that the guidance is developed collaboratively between the UK Government and the devolved administrations to help ensure consistency across the four nations whilst still reflecting the devolved contexts.
It is also vitally important that the Statutory Guidance is informed by wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders including those bodies to which the Bill will apply and third sector organisations working with the Armed Forces community. Above all, we would strongly argue that it is vital to ensure meaningful consultation with the Armed Forces community themselves including serving personnel, veterans, and their families. This must include specific targeted engagement with children and young people to ensure their voices are heard, as per their right under Article 12 UNCRC. The need for meaningful, wide-ranging consultation around the Statutory Guidance is heightened given that the Bill itself was not publicly consulted upon prior to its introduction to Parliament.
RCET welcomes 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 in which the duty may apply. We also welcome the duty to consult with the devolved administrations in the exercise of this power. Should the Bill remain unchanged in its scope in terms of the bodies and functions to which it applies, then this power is a very much necessary and important aspect of further strengthening the Covenant in law in the future. However, we would again reiterate that widening the the Bill to cover all public bodies in the exercise of all of their functions, would help ensure all relevant areas of policy are covered from the outset and serve to help future-proof the legislation.
RCET have concerns that as it stands, the Bill does not currently set out clear steps for enforcement of the ‘duty to have due regard’. We are aware that the Government has confirmed that no new enforcement mechanisms are planned for the due regard duty, but that existing complaints procedures and Ombudsmen could be used including the possibility of judicial review. It is important that the Armed Forces community have clarity about routes for redress and enforcement measures. Accessible and effective enforcement measures are vital to ensure the ‘duty to have due regard’ is meaningful and the principles of the Covenant are upheld. It seems that the Statutory Guidance will again be vital here in setting out in further detail what enforcement will look like in practice. We would therefore once again call for the publication of the Statutory Guidance as soon as possible to allow clearer evaluation of proposed enforcement measures. We would also like to highlight the need to consider the accessibility of enforcement measures for all members of the Armed Forces community and urge that particular consideration be given to ensuring child-friendly processes are in place where appropriate. It is vital that children and young people are empowered to access the protection offered by the Covenant in their own right, should they wish to do so. This will require effective information and support mechanisms to be in place.
Whilst on the face of the Bill the provisions apply equally to all members of the Armed Forces community, we believe differences may be experienced in their impact on Serving personnel, veterans, and their families. It might be expected that the provisions will be of most benefit to those highly mobile family members who may experience greater instances of disadvantage in relation to healthcare and education. Serving personnel on the other hand may have less need to rely on the provisions in relation to issues such as healthcare due to their healthcare needs being met by the MoD.
RCET also firmly believe that for the provisions to have a tangible positive impact for children and young people in Armed Forces families, there is a need for targeted measures to raise awareness of the Covenant amongst children and young people and to support and empower them to understand and use the protections offered by the Covenant to address any disadvantages they may face associated with service life. Ensuring the availability of accessible child-friendly advice, information, and support in addition to child-friendly enforcement measures is crucial to ensure the Covenant truly works for all our Armed Forces community including children and young people.
22 March 2021
Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill