by Michael Dugher
After months of pressure from the Royal British Legion and others, including the Labour frontbench, and in the face of certain Parliamentary defeat, the government finally agreed to enshrine the “military covenant” in law. A year ago, Cameron had personally promised to have the covenant “written into the law of the land” in a big set speech on HMS Ark Royal, only to later back track on the pledge (and then scrap the Ark Royal for good measure). The government’s u-turn on the covenant is welcome. At a time when more is being asked of our armed forces, it is vital that we put the government’s obligations to the armed services on a proper legal footing. Yet the announcement is, sadly, only the latest example of the government’s approach to the armed forces: giving with one hand, while taking away with the other. Labour should expose this. We also need to recognise both the achievements, as well as the limitations, of our time in office. And we need to be at the forefront of argument that our forces and their families deserve the very highest levels of care and support.
The truth is that Labour should have taken the covenant out of party politics at the end of the last parliament. The opportunity was there to fully commit to enshrine the covenant in law, as we had already paved the way with some ground-breaking work on armed forces’ welfare. Labour was the first to deliver a cross-government strategy on the welfare of armed forces personnel. Bob Ainsworth, in particular, deserves credit for pushing through the publication of the service personnel command paper in summer 2008, when he was minister for the armed forces. This set out improved access to housing schemes and healthcare, the doubling of compensation payments for the most serious injuries, the doubling of the welfare grant for families of those on operations and free access to further education for service leavers with six years service.
In government, Labour worked hard to reverse the legacy of decades of Tory underinvestment in service accommodation. This included more and better focused investment, delivering over 38,000 new or improved single-living bed-spaces and upgrading over 14,000 family homes. Armed forces’ pay increases between 2006 and 2010 were among the highest in the public sector and basic pay went up in line with the recommendations of the independent armed forces pay review body every year. The largest percentage increases were targeted at the junior ranks. These good deals on pay came on top of many other improvements, such as the creation of the operational allowance, the council tax relief scheme and the introduction of the armed forces compensation scheme.
But today there is still not a lot more that needs to be done. According to new research by the Royal British Legion (RBL), published last week, the armed forces are facing a “perfect storm” of health and welfare needs in the coming years. The RBL predict that the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq will “combine strains on public sector support with defence cuts” to create a massive pull on resources.
Redundancies, announced in the government’s strategic defence and security review (SDSR) play a big part in this equation. Over 17,000 service men and woman are expected to be made redundant over the next few years and many will be embarking on a civilian life in very difficult economic times. The RBL research estimates that by 2020, 1.8 million people in the armed forces community will be living with long-standing illnesses, 800,000 will be isolated socially and 700,000 will be living below the poverty line. These stark figures demonstrate the task we face.
By setting out to enshrine the military covenant in law, the government has taken a step towards meeting the challenge. Some of the proposals that Liam Fox announced last Monday can build on what Labour did in government and make a positive difference, but in too many areas they were simply re-announcements of what had been already put in place. More broadly, the SDSR has created a new affordability problem for the MoD as so many of the measures announced were not even costed, let alone funded. Relations between the treasury and the MoD are said to be at rock bottom and there remain huge uncertainties about the MoD’s funding. But as Lord West, the former first sea lord, said recently, the government must not be allowed to use the covenant as a “smokescreen” to hide the impact of its other polices.
A classic example of the “give with one hand, take with the other” approach is the government making much of its policy to double the operational allowance for service personnel, yet at the same time some 140,000 of them are subject to a pay freeze – a pay cut in real terms. Added to that, the MoD is introducing cuts of £250 million to other allowances, such as the continuity of education allowance and the school children’s visits allowance. Military personnel are set to lose thousands of pounds due to the government’s changes to the pension indexation from the retail price index to the lower consumer price index. This move will disproportionately affect members of the armed forces and their dependents as service personnel generally rely on their pensions earlier than the rest of the public. (For example, it has been calculated that a 28 year-old double amputee corporal will lose £587,000 over the course of his life.) After months of unfairly denouncing Gordon Brown for apparently not providing the armed forces with enough helicopters, one of the first things David Cameron did was to reduce Labour’s order for new Chinooks for Afghanistan, before failing in the end to place the order at all.
Such breaches are particularly ill-timed. The head of the army and head of the RAF both said recently that their services were “running hot” as a result of conducting operations in Libya and Afghanistan. It is right for the government to recognise the unique nature of the work our forces do and accept the duty we all have to support those who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country. It is also right that we meet our moral obligation to care for their families. Enshrining the military covenant is a major step in the right direction. In welcoming that decision, Labour will continue to press the case for our armed forces and their families. But that does mean exposing ministers when they are not merely guilty of robbing forces Peter to pay treasury Paul, but mugging Peter and calling it a favour.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister.