Written evidence submitted by Help for Heroes to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
Submission of Written Evidence
Help for Heroes is submitting evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee to detail our reservations of Section 8 of the Armed Forces Bill, which addresses the Government’s intent to consolidate the Armed Forces Covenant in legislation. While we fully support the Government’s intent to strengthen the delivery of the Covenant, we believe the Bill should be expanded to ensure all levels of government are accountable on all the issues that are covered by the Covenant and which matter to our Armed Forces community.
Help for Heroes supports Veterans and Service Personnel who suffered an injury or illness during, or as a result of service, and their loved ones. Fundamentally, we believe all veterans should be able to lead a productive and purposeful life, be physically and mentally well and feel safe and secure. We have supported over 25,000 individuals over the past decade, while also supporting their close family and dependents.
Enshrining the Covenant into law was a Government commitment which Help for Heroes helped secure after we campaigned for the ‘Veterans Pledge’, led by The Sun, during the Conservative Leadership campaign in 2019. This commitment included a promise to strengthen the existing delivery of the covenant so that it benefits all members of the Armed Forces community and strengthens measures against public bodies who disregard it.
Before we saw the Armed Forces Bill, the expectation of those Help for Heroes supports – predominantly the wounded, injured and sick, and their loved ones – and therefore our expectation was that the legislation would be all encompassing, raising standards and consistency across all public services, with a view to ending disadvantage. We also believe that the legislation should increase accountability and provide veterans and their families with an accessible form of redress should their needs not be met.
Help for Heroes has been part of a Joint Working Group with the MOD, Cobseo, The Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and Forces in Mind Trust, which met during 2020 to offer our perspective and that of our veterans on the legislation.
We have largely examined the legislation from a veteran’s perspective, with the wounded, injured and sick, and their families in mind. However, we feel the legislation would have benefited from more direct and formal consultation with the Armed Forces Community.
That said, we welcomed these regular opportunities to exchange views and felt the informal consultation was constructive and helped to clarify many issues. However, in our aim to ensure the legislation is as strong as possible for those we support, we still have a number of concerns which we feel have yet to be resolved and wish to continue this engagement to improve the policy proposals.
Summary of Our Concerns
The concerns of Help for Heroes, which have also been highlighted by other sector representatives via the Joint Working Group, are as follows:
These areas of concerns are considered below in more detail, building on the experiences of those we support, with a specific focus on the Bill’s scope, special consideration, consistency, the devolved administrations and enforcement.
Scope: We believe that the limited scope of the legislation to Healthcare, and only some aspects of Housing and Education, rather than the full reach of the Covenant is the issue that will resonate most amongst those we support. While we recognise that these three strands of policy comprise the foundation of successful lives and are commonly raised areas for concern by much of the Armed Forces Community, especially for those in transition, the vast majority of veterans are of non-working age and we feel the legislation does little to speak to them or their needs.
Of particular importance to the wounded, injured and sick is the provision of social care, which for many is closely linked to their healthcare needs. Many of those we support face a constant battle to make sure their long-term care, rehabilitation and social needs are met, are appropriately funded and expertly co-ordinated. Much of this support, which is often essential if they are to receive the help they need to significantly improve their quality of life, is not routinely provided by the NHS or the local authority, and we believe the Bill should be aiming to strengthen this kind of provision.
As the Royal British Legion has already highlighted to the Committee, the exclusion of some policy areas over others could result in these areas being downgraded in importance, given that they will not benefit from enhanced legal protections. Indeed, the Covenant is a lifelong obligation, and many issues of vital concern to veterans, such as social care, pensions, compensation, employment, immigration, criminal justice, plus the omitted parts of health, housing and education, have been excluded.
While we note the Secretary of State’s intent to facilitate future upgrades, it is not at all clear how this and when such enhancement would be delivered and therefore how much of a guarantee it constitutes. Indeed, if these policy areas are not being included now, then it is very hard to envisage any circumstances in which the government would in the future voluntarily seek to impose greater legal burdens on itself.
Special Consideration: Help for Heroes has the interests of some of our most seriously injured personnel at heart, so it is of course welcome, and crucial, that ‘special consideration’ is included in the legislative proposals. However, it is not clear to us, through the current proposals, how the Bill will enhance the principle of ‘special consideration’ for those that have sacrificed the most, or for how this will be translated into a meaningful commitment.
Within Healthcare, for instance, ‘special consideration’ is applied to some of our most injured personnel through the provision of advanced prosthetic services; access to some military rehabilitation facilities; additional funding for mobility and hearing services; targeted case management; and mental health provision. However, we know veterans can still have completely different experiences of these services and that local health providers are subjected to the competing priorities of each local authority, creating, in effect, a ‘post code lottery’ of this provision.
In some instances, the NHS aims to mitigate or remove disadvantage but doing so in ways that are over and above what is provided for civilians. For instance, the Integrated Personal Commissioning for Veterans (IPC4V) Framework was born out of the need to ensure that a small number of Armed Forces personnel who have complex and enduring physical, neurological and mental health conditions resulting from injury that is attributable to Service are effectively cared for and supported as they transition to civilian life and beyond.
However, we note that the IPC4V is only available across England, and that it seeks to ensure that health and social care, together with the Ministry of Defence and other organisations, are working collaboratively to ensure the provision of personalised care, support and treatment for the individual and their family. This further highlights the shortcomings of the Bill’s constrained scope, as in this case, social care and the MOD (i.e., national government), are currently excluded from its provisions.
Indeed, often the most appropriate examples of ‘special consideration’ involve the joining up of services and provisions, with health and social care, welfare, pensions and compensation being notable examples.
Consistency: What the Bill sets out to do with local authorities is welcome, but as we outline above, if all areas of potential disadvantage are to be addressed, and if special consideration is to be truly provided for, the legislation needs to set measurable and enforceable national standards for which central Government is also held to account. Otherwise, there is a danger that this will create a two-tier Covenant with respect to the redress under it that members of the Armed Forces community will be able to seek.
The proposed legislation aims to impose a new duty on relevant public bodies, when exercising certain aspects of their public functions, to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant. However, as this duty is not defined in the legislation, it is unclear how its application will be monitored, and we believe it provides no real legal recourse for the Armed Forces Community. Moreover, without measuring its implementation or improving data collection at a local level, we feel it will be difficult to hold any public body account in any formal way, beyond the services charity sector highlighting its observations to national government through the Covenant Annual Report.
While we recognise that local authorities want to be able to deliver the principles of the Covenant through a variety of mechanisms and in different ways, there is a real risk that service providers with limited resources will adhere to the minimum requirement of what they have to provide, and not to the duty of due regard.
We therefore believe all the issues that matter to the Armed Forces community should be given greater legal protection under this Bill and that the performance of all public bodies should be measured more formally. As the Royal British Legion has already highlighted, the simplest and most effective way to achieve this would be to expand the range of public bodies subject to the new duty of due regard, extend it to all their functions and place a greater focus on improving local data collection.
Devolved Administrations: Of course, the Armed Forces Covenant also applies throughout the whole of the UK and the areas within scope of the Bill (healthcare, education and housing) are largely devolved matters. However, we have received very little insight into how the legislation would apply in the devolved administrations and reflect the notable differences in structures and policy, whether it will only apply to local authorities in those parts of the UK, or how the particular complexities in Northern Ireland will be addressed.
While we note that the Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult with officials in the devolved Administrations, we believe that the statutory guidance needs to be designed with the full consent of each nation, in order to best reflect local and regional factors and jurisdictions, and to optimise local support. Ultimately, however, it is important to ensure that there is consistency across the UK in what is produced, demonstrating both the letter and spirit of the Covenant, while still respecting and reflecting the devolved context wherever possible.
Enforcement: As indicated in our section on consistency, the mechanisms for implementation and enforcement of the duty currently remain unclear. Before a new duty can be put in place, we feel that the Armed Forces Community should know that there are sufficient, clear and accessible means of redress provided for in the legislation itself.
For instance, the role of the Ombudsmen needs to be set out very clearly in the legislation if they are to be given key responsibilities for enforcement. We know that, for many of those we support, understanding the Ombudsman mechanisms and procedures already proves challenging. We feel that accompanying guidance created specifically for the Armed Forces community as to what the new, or existing complaints procedures are, and whose job it would be to enforce these measures, would therefore be necessary.
Whilst noting that it would be a last resort, we believe enforcement of the legislation by Judicial Review for the ordinary member of the Armed Forces community is impractical in cost and timeliness, and undesirable in creating an adversarial culture around the Covenant. Therefore, we feel it offers an inaccessible option of redress for most in the community.
There is no doubt that the Armed Forces Covenant has delivered real progress for veterans, serving personnel and their families and we fully support the Government’s intent to strengthen its delivery. However, as the Armed Forces Bill provides a rare opportunity to cement elements of the Covenant into law, Help for Heroes remains steadfast in its belief that the Bill needs to go further to enable the Covenant to truly deliver on behalf of those who have served our country.
We understand that the proposals set out in Section 8 represent a work in progress, and we are grateful that we have been able to engage with the Ministry of Defence via the Joint Working Group throughout this process. However, we will continue to present evidence from those we support and make the case for widening the scope of the legislation to include all policy areas, and to secure a mechanism for accountability regarding implementation of the Covenant at a local and national level.
22 March 2021
Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill