AFB0028

 

Written evidence submitted by COSLA to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

 

COSLA welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Westminster Parliament on the Armed Forces Bill.  Armed Forces serving personnel, veterans, reservists and their families are valued members of Scotland’s local communities. All Scottish local authorities have signed the voluntary Armed Forces Covenant and are committed to honouring their obligations.  Local authorities also work with partner organisations to provide a range of services that support serving personnel and their families.   

 

Local authorities support veterans and their families to adjust from the Armed Forces to civilian life, including housing, money advice, employment support, schools and health and wellbeing services.   We understand that the Covenant is being implemented well across the length and breadth of Scottish local authorities.   As a result, a duty may raise expectations and demands on high quality services already provided by local authorities.

 

We are concerned that the Bill, which sets out the proposed statutory duty for all UK public authorities to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant lacks detail. This means that it is difficult to fully understand the implications for Scottish local authorities across housing, education and healthcare services. It is also of paramount importance that potential additional resources are fully funded by national government and kept under review so that Scottish local authorities can continue to deliver high quality services to their armed forces community.   We look forward to contributing towards the guidance which will set out what is expected of Scottish local authorities. This should be co-produced with local authorities so that the duty builds upon existing partnerships and good practice, as well as allow local flexibility to deliver Covenant pledges.

 

Housing, health and education are often priority issues for armed services communities in Scotland. Local authorities are well placed to join-up support around a person’s and their family’s needs, in partnership with the third sector and others. This might include links to other services and advice, such as employment support.

 

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 local authorities so that they can honour all their local Covenant commitments.   Also, should more policy areas be included in the Bill this could further increase expectations and service demands from the armed forces community.  As a result, it will be important that resources would be considered for any other areas too.

 

Sections of the Bill are not well adapted to the situation of education in Scotland and require to take sufficient account of the distinctive character of education within the wider UK setting.   There is already a raft of legislation and initiatives in place that ensure the education system in Scotland is inclusive and very accessible.   Any duty should also have to take account of other initiatives in Scotland such as the Fairer Scotland Duty.

 

Guidance should be co-produced with Scottish local authorities so that the duty builds upon existing partnerships and good practice, allows local flexibility to deliver Covenant pledges and supports innovative approaches.

Should more policy areas or regulations be included in the Bill this could further increase expectations and service demands from the armed forces community.  As a result, this would very much likely lead to increased resource pressures on Scottish local authorities.

 

As with any legal duty, there needs to be a clear and proportionate process to resolve complaints. It would be sensible for the duty’s enforcement mechanism to align with existing processes for people to complain about local government services.  That said, Scottish local authorities will always aim to resolve complaints without the need for escalation.  It is also unlikely that the duty will result in judicial review proceedings.

This is difficult to answer without more detail on what Scottish local authorities will be expected to do to comply with the duty. Although we are supportive of what the MOD is trying to achieve, we have raised significant concerns about the MOD’s engagement process. The MOD asked a limited number of Scottish local authorities to estimate cost impacts without knowing the full details of the proposals and this all occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are concerned that the lack of evidence on resource implications may be interpreted as an assumption there are no implications. We are content to work with MOD on a fuller understanding of the resource implications and to understand potential differences in the resource implications.  

 

We have been informed that the duty largely codifies what many Scottish local authorities are already doing.  This is possibly true to some extent, but not for all local authorities for a variety of reasons. Resources and support will be needed, including in places that are already leading comprehensive approaches, if the duty is to be more than a tick box exercise.

There is currently insufficient information to identify the location of serving and veteran personnel and their families, and whether these families are located with or apart from personnelVeterans are likely to require differing support from serving personnel, for example enhanced support for employability, establishing their own enterprises, and housing, healthcare and education requirements.  Whilst the Bill does not mandate an approach for veterans, the duty will require local authorities to have due regard to all categories.

 

Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill