Tories dragged kicking and screaming to put military covenant in law

by Gemma Doyle

In the weekend’s media, David Cameron outlined his government’s plan to enshrine the military covenant in law. After earlier back-tracking on his pledge – made aboard HMS Ark Royal last summer – the prime minister has now been dragged kicking and screaming by Labour, working alongside the Royal British Legion, to keep his promise to our brave armed forces. We welcome this step to define and strengthen the contract between the state, the people and our armed forces, which we campaigned for. But the Tory-led government still has a long way to go to rebuild the trust of the armed forces community it has lost since taking office a year ago.

Our servicemen and women do dangerous and difficult work in conflict zones all over the globe. It places great strain on loved ones when their husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters spend many months away from home.

The most important thing we should do is ensure that our armed forces are not disadvantaged because of their service. Whether it be the housing they are eligible for, the employment opportunities open to their spouses, or the standard of their children’s education, opportunities should not be closed off to them because they have signed up to serve their country.

In recognition of this, the last Labour government delivered the first cross-government approach to forces’ welfare, which was widely welcomed by the service community. The service personnel command paper set out improved access to housing schemes and healthcare, free access to further and higher education for many service leavers, and extended travel concessions for veterans.

For a year in office the Tory-led government has seemed determined to abandon that approach.

It gave me no pleasure to hear the chairman of the forces pension society, Sir John Moore-Bick say “I have never seen a government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly”. Yet it is not hard to understand why he did.

Before becoming secretary of state for defence last year, Liam Fox declared that the military covenant was “shattered”. He pledged that a Conservative government would rebuild it.

But the reality is that under the Tory-led government, spending is being cut faster and deeper than for a generation, and no recognition has been given to the unique nature of service life.

Thousands of servicemen and women will be made redundant, many more will see cuts to their allowances, and all will be hit disproportionately hard compared to other workers by plans to downgrade public sector pension rises. These are just some of many actions taken by the government in the last twelve months, which have completely undermined the military covenant.

This week, Liam Fox confirmed to Parliament that the principles of the military covenant will be enshrined in law. That is a positive step forward.

The covenant between the nation and our services says that the UK’s commitment to its armed forces is made in recognition that a career in the forces differs from all others. It recognises that service personnel agree to sacrifice certain civil liberties and follow orders, including placing themselves in harm’s way in the defence of others. In return, the state and the nation shall help and support people who give that service. Writing the covenant into law is a symbolic gesture of our commitment to our servicemen and women. But it is much more than that – it’s a vital measure to ensure that government and public bodies are forced to meet their responsibilities to our armed forces.

Unfortunately, while welcome, the government’s action is belated. It has come only as a consequence of fear of a defeat in Parliament and in the face of huge anger from forces families, after David Cameron reneged on his HMS Ark Royal pledge. After making that pledge, his government refused to include proposals to write the covenant in law through the armed forces bill, and he ordered his MPs to vote against Labour amendments which would have done so.

Nonetheless, it is welcome that the principles of the rights that our forces heroes can expect in return for their service will now be protected by law. But this announcement does not change all that has gone before. The Tory-led government needs to review wholesale its approach to the armed forces, which has led to a meltdown in morale. And the military community will rightly ask why it has taken twelve months of discussion and a double u-turn from the government to have the decency to honour their promise.

Looking to the future, Labour’s shadow defence team, led by Jim Murphy, is conducting a full review of our policy. In this process, I am reviewing our approach to the welfare of service personnel, forces families and veterans, and to strengthening the military covenant.

This review will be guided by meeting the needs of the armed forces community. The outcomes will be determined only after detailed consultation with forces charities, families, and our soldiers, sailors and airmen themselves. It will not be a rushed, cost-cutting exercise like the government’s strategic defence and security review.

Labour campaigned for and welcomes the move to put the military covenant on a legal footing. But in spite of this, since taking office, the Tory-led government’s actions have undermined the relationship between the state and our armed forces. We want to rebuild this relationship and strengthen the covenant. Our armed forces deserve nothing less for the sacrifices they are prepared to make on our behalf.

Gemma Doyle is Labour MP for West Dunbartonshire and a shadow defence minister.


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6 Responses to “Tories dragged kicking and screaming to put military covenant in law”

  1. And which government was the one that kept breaking the “covenent” which led to the current government enshrining into law. Which party was the one that didn’t pay for our soldiers to have basic kit and safe transport?

  2. Henrik says:

    Oh my word, Labour, of all parties, talking about the military covenant? Oh dear, oh dear. Ms Doyle, you are in no position to criticise; the Labour government’s shameful record on national defence from 1997-1010 and its demonstrated disregard for both active and former members of the armed services is a matter of public record.

    Should we really have the debate, here, about when and how it is appropriate to use military force, what the preconditions for that use are and how desirable it is that elected politicans both define the desired end state and support the troops striving to bring that end state about? No, thought not.

    Comrades, don’t get into the defence or civil liberties debates. Your brand is far too toxic in that sphere. Stick to your home turf, where incompetence, rather than malice, was the hallmark of the Blair-Brown years.

  3. Rufus D says:

    I retired from the forces in 1999 and ceased to be a member of the Labour Party after the invasion of Iraq. While the current Government may have ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to a covenant, that is still a damn sight more than Blair/Brown could do; if you forget the spin and half-truths and inventions used to start a war to require the upgrading of the covenant

  4. iain ker says:

    Rufus D hush your mouth.

    I swear I saw a photo-op of Captain Insensible in Afghanistan with some handily-placed Ridgebacks in the background and my own ears hearing him say with a casual wave of his arm, ‘As you can see, behind me…’

    Not a Snatch Landrover in sight.

  5. what a hypocrit Cameron is. He’s supposedly “ensshrining” the military covenant, whils not actually specifying any legal rights or benefits, and simultaneously cutting pensions! Its just another piece of vile PR from a vile PR man. As someone whose just left the RN I can safely say that conditions, accomodation, and pay all improved, often (in the case of accomodation) dramatically- in my last ten years-ALL under Labour! They may not have been so vocal about the Military Covenant but at least it wasn’t vile “lip service” from a goverment that’s greeting Afghanistan veterans with P45s and cut pensions.

  6. Henrik says:

    @thunderchild, with all due respect, if your pay and conditions improved dramatically under Labour, I would submit you were extremely fortunate by comparison with most of the Army, which saw its TACOS and accommodation standards eroded dramatically throughout the period, to say nothing of being left with its arse hanging out with no strategy in Basra and now Helmand.

    The problem with playing with the military toys is that under our system, it’s up to the civilian government to set the purpose and aim of military operations, define the desired end state those operations are to deliver and ensure the military has the resources it needs to generate the effects required to produce that end state. On at least three occasions, Labour sent the boys and girls into action without any sort of indication of the aim of the operation or very much in the way of political direction. This is a recipe for humiliation and unnecessary casualties, both of which the UK Armed Forces suffered and are suffering.

    The 1997-2010 Labourshchina probably wasn’t unpatriotic or anti-military, however much that was the impression it gave; I tend to put its diabolically poor performance down to ignorance, incompetence and arrogance, rather than malice – but then I’ve always been a fair-minded and tolerant individual. Many of my old comrades would feel differently, I suspect.

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