The Committee also calls for closer engagement between the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive on support for the Armed Forces Community.
The Armed Forces Covenant sets out the relationship between the Government and the Armed Forces Community, and sets the standards for the level of services that veterans and their families should expect. The Committee’s inquiry found that due to devolution, variations exist across the regions of the UK as to how health, housing and education services are provided. There are some specific benefits for the armed forces community that exist in Great Britain but are not available in Northern Ireland, such as improved access to IVF treatment, priority in accessing NHS healthcare, additional priority in accessing social housing, and certain educational entitlements.
The Committee heard evidence that local solutions could be found in most cases where these differences affected members of the Armed Forces Community, and that the UK Government is working with Northern Ireland departments to make progress on a number of these issues. But the Committee wants to ensure that the identified needs of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland are met, and calls on Government to set out how this will be done.
The Armed Forces Covenant – published in May 2011 – stresses the moral obligation the nation has to the Armed Forces Community, and states that members of the Armed Forces Community should not be disadvantaged as a result of service. In certain cases, special consideration is appropriate for those who have served their country, and their families. HM Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have published detailed reports outlining the support offered to the Armed Forces Community, and how the Covenant is being implemented in England, Scotland and Wales. As yet, no such report has been produced by the Northern Ireland Executive. As part of our inquiry we have looked at areas where progress has been made in Northern Ireland in relation to the Armed Forces Covenant, and areas where more needs to be done.
The Committee says there are still a number of areas where improvements are needed, including:
- HM Government should respond to the identified needs of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, and report on how these will be met;
- Service providers should understand that the equality framework in Northern Ireland does not create a greater barrier to the implementation of the Covenant than elsewhere in the UK;
- The MoD should approach individual Northern Ireland departments for contributions to future Annual Reports on the Armed Forces Covenant, so that the Secretary of State for Defence can report on progress in Northern Ireland, and on those areas where more needs to be done, and
- The NIO and MoD should work with the Northern Ireland Executive towards the appointment of a representative from the Executive to the Covenant Reference Group.
Laurence Robertson MP, Chair of the Committee said;
"We absolutely support the principle that members of the Armed Forces and their families must not be disadvantaged by their service to their country and all that it entails. This means that in some cases, special consideration should be given, to reflect the special demands and sacrifices of service. The Welsh and Scottish administrations have worked admirably to implement the Armed Forces Covenant in Scotland and in Wales and published comprehensive reports on Government support available to the Armed Forces Community, and we hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will do the same.
Of course we recognise that the political and legal situation in Northern Ireland makes issues relating to the Armed Forces delicate and potentially contentious, but this should not mean that the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland is disadvantaged.
We welcome the work by the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence to assess any shortfall in Covenant provision in Northern Ireland. It is vital that any such shortfalls are addressed, whether this is by the Northern Ireland Executive or HM Government. The MoD must respond to any identified needs of the Armed Forces Community in Northern Ireland, and report on how these will be met."