The Armed Forces covenant does no justice to those who serve
As the nation prepares to celebrate Armed Forces Day, we look at what needs to be done to ensure that the men and women who have served our country are not disadvantaged by their service.
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By Air Vice-Marshal David Murray, Chief Executive of SSAFA
Next weekend, the nation will celebrate Armed Forces Day: it’s a chance for us all to express our gratitude to the remarkable men and women who have served this country and remember those who lost their lives in its service.
It’s heartening to see that public support for our Armed Forces remains strong. Indeed in a recent poll for SSAFA, seven out of ten said they wanted to see more support given to veterans.
A fresh sense of pride in our Armed Forces was evident during the Afghan conflict, but my fear is that, as Afghanistan drops off the front pages and passes into the history books, so those who took part in the most intense front-line combat we have witnessed since the Second World War, will too easily be forgotten. Often it is only once they have returned home, or left the Services, that they need to call on our support.
The introduction of the Armed Forces Covenant, which stipulates that those who have served their country should not be disadvantaged as a result, was a positive move by the last government. However, the reality is that - though it is now enshrined in law - many local authorities seem to feel that applying it is an option rather than an obligation.
SSAFA works with 90,000 serving personnel, veterans, reservists and their families each year and I can assure you they are not looking for preferential treatment. They are asking for two things; to have the same opportunities as everybody else and that neither them or their families be disadvantaged by their service.
The Armed Forces Covenant lacks bite. It provides excellent guidance but there is no guarantee of enforcement. Only last week, the Local Government Ombudsman criticised a County Council for falling short of the Covenant. As a result of the Ombudsman’s ruling, the council was forced to reverse its decision, but why should a military family have to go through a lengthy complaint process just to avoid being disadvantaged?
Sadly, that case is not an isolated one. Serving personnel are returning to their home towns after postings abroad or being discharged to find themselves at the bottom of the housing list and without places in the local schools for their children. Why? Because since leaving their homes to serve their country, they are no longer classed as local residents. Military families are struggling to adopt children and military spouses struggle to gain employment because their lives are seen as too peripatetic.
Some of the service families we help have told me their local authorities tend to interpret the Covenant as only applying to the stereotypical older veteran. That means serving personnel and younger veterans, who have recently served, are often overlooked. Mistakenly, they are viewed as not being vulnerable enough.
SSAFA has been particularly concerned about the plight of younger veterans for some time. Our poll heightened these concerns; one in two people say they think of veterans as those aged over 45. Yet it is the younger veterans, aged 35 and younger – the ones dubbed “Generation Afghan” - who seem to be slipping through the net.
We are determined to ensure this does not happen. As the only national military charity that has been here through two World Wars, and every conflict since, experience tell us that the full impact of the Afghanistan campaign is yet to be seen. We have therefore commissioned an in-depth study to identify the specific needs of this group of veterans aged under 35 and what more can be done to support them.
The Covenant states: ‘Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage’. It must be made clear which local authorities are delivering on this and which are not. Tangible measurables need to be implemented and we must not be afraid to hold local authorities to account. Paying lip service is not good enough, nor is it fair to the men and women we are honouring on Armed Forces Day.
Despite the promises made in the Covenant, the Armed Forces community is in danger of remaining a disadvantaged group within our society. That should simply not be the case. The Covenant is an excellent concept and much thought has gone into writing it, but if its principles are not observed it will achieve nothing.