The Military Covenant
Speech

Droitwich Spa branch of the Royal British Legion

It’s a tribute to the Royal British Legion that a phrase few people outside the armed services had heard of a year or so ago is now at the centre of political debate. A campaign now only a little over two months old has energised the nation.

I believe you are concentrating on three key issues – compensation, healthcare and support for the bereaved. I agree with the Legion on all three points, but I want to address a number of other issues too.

I agree with General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, who said recently :
‘Now, a great deal has been made of the Military Covenant in recent weeks, mostly in terms of work load, equipment, accommodation and pay, and balance is required here - but the real covenant is with the population at large – the Nation.’
The covenant was, I believe first written down only seven years ago, but its principles were at the heart of the way the nation treated its armed forces. This is what the Military Covenant now says

“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.

In the same way the unique nature of military land operations means that the Army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation.

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. It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the Nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action”

How the Covenant should be honoured

It’s significant that the Covenant and the Chief of the General Staff both refer to the Nation, not the State. In other words, it’s not just a matter for politicians, but for all of us to honour the Covenant.

I know some of the wars that our forces have been sent on have been controversial, and none more so than Iraq, but our armed services have gone unquestioningly and served the nation bravely and with honour.

Whatever our view of the merits of the individual wars they have been asked to fight, the Nation must honour our armed forces with greater pride and respect than has been the case recently.

Yes, that means the government taking action to deal with the key practical grievances of the army, navy and air force – but it also means ordinary people and communities doing more to show their respect for what is done in their name.

On holiday in the United States earlier this year, I was struck by the way the smallest gas station or drugstore in the smallest, sleepiest town would proudly display pictures of the their boys and girls at war in Iraq.

And my brother-in-law, a serving officer in the Royal Navy, tells me how it’s almost impossible to go into a bar in the USA in naval uniform and buy your own drink – service men and women even get cut-rate admission to theme parks.

So in supporting the Legion’s “Honour the Covenant” campaign, I am doing more than calling on the government to take its responsibilities to the armed services more seriously – I am saying the same applies to all of us.

Yes, I think the government has asked too much of our troops and given too little in return. But I also believe all of us as businesses, councils and private citizens should reflect on what more we could do; what more we could do to show our gratitude to the men and women who risk their lives for our freedom and security today, just as bravely as they did in the First and Second World Wars, in Korea, in the Falklands, in the Balkans or in so many other scenes of armed conflict in our recent history.

The government

Only today, it has been revealed that General Dannatt, has been reported as saying that the military covenant is “out of kilter”. He is right – it is at very least that.

A report prepared for him after detailed research highlights “Overstretch.”

The report says “The tank of goodwill now runs on vapour” – and that “Iraq and Afghanistan are “mortgaging the goodwill of our people”. With leave frequently cancelled and harmony guidelines on time between tours being breached, this is perhaps the single most pressing issue, but there are others listed too, such as:

• Delays to military inquests
• Military housing estates unsafe, run down and shared with inappropriate neighbours
• Poor food leading to a “pot noodle and sandwich” culture
• Work-life balance “an increasing concern”

Because the law gives the government 'combat immunity', soldiers can’t claim compensation for injuries they received in combat except under official compensation schemes. Because soldiers cannot take the Crown to a civil court, the covenant is viewed as important in protecting soldiers' rights to compensation. I know the Legion is rightly concerned about the adequacy of these compensation arrangements.

I share the Legions’ concern too about the need for a greater commitment to support the physical and mental health of Service people, their families and veterans

I do not want to engage in political point-scoring, but I also find it surprising that we now have a part-time Defence Secretary. Des Browne is both the Secretary of State for Defence and Scotland. This means that Mr Browne simply cannot devote his full attention to the major challenges and problems our armed forces are facing.

It is not surprising that we now hear outspoken criticism from officers and service chiefs who are having to speak out because they feel that the Government is not listening to them.

Personnel in Afghanistan have posted videos and information on internet sites and to the media.

Last week Lt Col Stuart Tootal, who commanded the Paras in Afghanistan, resigned form the army over what he called the “shoddy treatment” of injured troops.

And in March, the Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup admitted that ‘we are very stretched at the moment’.

Nobody could better sum up the impact of ten years Labour on the Armed Forces than former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie in this telling quote:

‘Today I think they [the Armed Forces] do feel undervalued and taken for granted. The last time they felt like this was in the days of the Callaghan Government’.

So what can we all do?

I am in Opposition, so I can promise little except to keep up the pressure for change.

At the Falklands service and parade in Worcester last month I did just that when I challenged Admiral Lord West about the covenant – and he didn’t much like it!

I am very pleased that my Party recognises the importance of the Military Covenant and is putting together a specific manifesto explaining how a future Conservative Government will help and assist the families of our armed forces.

But we can all help to honour the covenant.

Many of us – encouragingly large numbers of us – did that at Remembrance services and parades a week ago.

I am delighted that the old Worcester and Sherwood Foresters – now the Second Battalion Mercian Regiment and back from an arduous tour of Afghanistan - will be marching through Worcester on December 6th. I hope there will be a great turn-out to welcome them and to honour them.

I resent the dilution of our link with this regiment as a result of reorganisations in the Army. I would like to see the links between communities and the armed forces rebuilt by restoring historic names wherever possible – simple symbolic acts like calling naval ships after major towns and cities mean so much.

And how about local businesses being challenged to offer discounts to members of the armed forces?

I am delighted that Wychavon District council has already passed this cross-party motion proposed by Councillor Adams, seconded by Councillor Wright – by acclamation - on 25th September, 2007

“That the Council recognises the amalgamation of the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters Regiment into the Mercian Regiment as the 2nd Battalion (Worcesters and Foresters). In doing this, the Council acknowledges the dedication and loyalty being shown by all serving soldiers, particularly those based abroad.”

I am even more delighted to be able to tell you that Wychavon is now looking at what discounts it can offer serving members of the armed forces who use their leisure services. Here is a practical way of honouring our army, navy and air force and showing our deep gratitude in a very practical way.

Yes, to honour the covenant means government action to address the legitimate grievances of the armed services and of the Royal British Legion – but we can all do our own thing too to show those who risk their lives for us day in and day out that we are profoundly grateful for their professionalism and courage.

That is a challenge for every man, woman and child in the county. Together we can Honour the Covenant.

ENDS

Note to Editors;

The Military Covenant is a social and moral commitment between the State and Service personnel in the Armed Forces that has developed through long standing convention and customs. Although it has no legal basis it implies that in return for the sacrifices that Service personnel make, the State has an obligation to recognise that contribution and retains a long term duty of care toward Service personnel and their families.

The pact was formally codified as a 'covenant' in 2000 (in Army Doctrine Publication Volume 5) and only officially applies to the army, but its core principles are taken to extend to the air force and navy too.

Over the last few months concerns have been expressed that the Military Covenant is being undermined and that a social gulf between the Armed Forces and the general public is developing.


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