It's been around since 2000 but what exactly does the term 'Armed Forces Covenant' mean?
Also referred to as the 'Military Covenant', it's a pledge from the government to 'treat members of the British Armed Forces and their families with fairness and respect'.
The Covenant focusses on helping members of the armed forces community have the same access to government and commercial services and products as any other citizen and are not disadvantaged by their military service. Some of these areas include health, housing, education, financial assistance and family well-being.
What are the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant?
- the armed forces community should not face disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services
- special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved
The principles originated in a booklet published by the Army, entitled 'Soldiering – the Military Covenant', which set out the mutual obligations between the nation and its Armed Forces. Its introduction reads as follows:
"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces.
"In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service..."
"This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history."
Should the Armed Forces Covenant be enshrined in law?
The Armed Forces Covenant is used to measure whether the government, and country in general, is doing enough to support members of the armed forces, be it through adequate safeguards, rewards, or compensation.
It is not, however, enshrined by law - which would allow British service personnel to sue the state for breaches of it. According to some media reports:
"It is an informal understanding, rather than a legally enforceable deal, but it is nevertheless treated with great seriousness within the services."
Although the Covenant itself is not a legal document its key principles were enshrined legally in the Armed Forces Act 2011 which obliges the Defence Secretary to make annual reports on the government’s progress in honouring the Covenant.
Armed Forces Covenant and the NHS
The Covenant ensures that serving personnel and their families retain their position on waiting lists if they must move for service reasons and has enabled priority access to NHS care for veterans for conditions associated with their service. (This doesn’t entitle people to be treated ahead of others with a higher clinical need).
Increased funding for military mental health services has been allocated and GPs' forms have been amended to ensure the identification of veterans when accessing services. It is important to let your GP know that you have served to ensure that ongoing care and treatment is continued and referred to the correct (and sometimes dedicated) services for treatment.
Access to IVF treatment and NHS funding can be problematic for military personnel and a specific policy is in place to ensure serving personnel can access treatment and in some cases, up to three free cycles of treatment.
Armed Forces Covenant and housing
The Covenant has enabled the removal of some of the barriers that prevented former serving personnel from applying for social housing, for example, a local connection criteria which Armed Forces families and personnel may not have due to their service.
An application for an award of ‘Special Consideration’ is considered by Local Authorities on a case by case basis and is proportionate to the nature of disability or mental health problem suffered by the applicant and/or family. The Covenant ensures that personnel are considered on the same level as other vulnerable people and others in greatest need and will be considered equally against them.
Other tailored schemes are in place for serving personnel which allows them access to government backed affordable housing schemes or financial arrangements and some banks allow consent to let or buy to let mortgage arrangements. Council tax relief was also introduced for service personnel on deployment.
Armed Forces Covenant for schools and school holidays
Initiatives under the Covenant provide for more collaboration between the Department for Education and the Ministry of Defence Directorate for Children and Young People. As a result of this there have been changes to the Common Transfer File (CTF) ensuring that the educational transfer of Service children is managed better, and additional support can be granted.
A specific section exists in the School Admissions Code ensuring school places must be allocated in advance of posting and not refused because pupils are not currently living in the area.
The Covenant introduced a Service Pupil Premium that provides extra funding to schools attended by service children, an extension of the Educational Support Fund and there are also many Military and school backed financial funds and incentives for other schooling options such as boarding schools.
Military personnel are sometimes unable to take family holidays outside of term-time due to deployments and the sometimes unpredictable demands of service life and although the decision ultimately lies with headteachers there is MoD official advice for them and support available from Commanding Officers and Welfare Staff for parents making applications for special considerations.
Armed Forces Covenant for business
Through the Covenent businesses can recognise the skills, qualities and contribution reservists and veterans can make to the civilian workplace. There are a variety of ways they can show their support through signing a pledge, whether that is through work and apprenticeship opportunities, granting extra support and leave for service spouses and ensuring reservist’s training and deployment is accommodated and supported.
Many businesses actively recruit from the ex-Forces pool of talent and ensure that applications are welcomed from serving spouses and reserves. Employer Recognition Schemes (ERS) are in place that enable the MoD to publicly honour organisations for their support.
But that doesn't mean it can't cause change. Several Chiefs of the Defence Staff, and organisations like the Royal British Legion (RBL), have referred to it in the past when arguing that governments need to do more for the forces community.
In 2007, in response to an RBL campaign, the Labour government of the time announced that veterans would get priority treatment on the NHS and that injured personnel would be immediately treated in hospital rather than having to go through waiting lists. Prescription charges were also waived.
In 2008, meanwhile, Mr Justice Blake referred to the Military Covenant when upholding the claim of six Gurkha soldiers to have the right to settle in the UK at the end of their service.
A month after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in 2010, it was reported that Prime Minister David Cameron planned to enshrine the Armed Forces Covenant in law.
These plans were deemed unnecessary and dropped the following year, however, with it instead agreed that the government would submit an annual report on the covenant to parliament, assessing how it is achieving its own goals for the armed forces, veterans and their families.