The Labour Party has a historic track record of working to support our armed forces. From Clement Attlee, serving as a Major in the first world war and in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet during the second, or under the last Labour government, when we introduced the armed forces compensation scheme. It was a huge improvement to the previous war pension scheme, with the maximum upfront compensation payment doubled to £570,000 in 2008.
But today it is also local Labour councillors and Labour-run councils that understand and continue to deliver for service personnel, veterans and their families. Take North Tyneside Council, which in 2018 became the first local authority to fund an armed forces officer to strengthen support for the armed forces community, with a focus on advising and signposting both serving and ex-serving personnel to housing, benefit, employment and health services.
In 2019, the council also agreed to introduce a scheme guaranteeing ex-serving personnel an interview for vacant posts, if they met the requirements extended to existing members of the armed forces serving as reservists. Later that year, the council was recognised by the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Awards, the highest badge of honour available to those that employ and support those who serve, veterans, and their families.
This is just one example of the many achievements I have heard of Labour councillors delivering for our armed forces during the shadow defence team’s and Labour Friends of the Forces’ recent discussions with our parliamentarians, councillors and armed forces champions.
The shadow defence team is also encouraging members from across our movement to get in touch with them, their local Royal British Legion branch and other relevant local groups, to understand what challenges the armed forces community face in their area and what is being done to help them.
But as the shadow defence bill heads to select committee stage, in its current form, is not only a missed opportunity, but it could restrict Labour councillors in their efforts in continuing to deliver for our troops.
The government claims the bill will enshrine the armed forces covenant into law, but in practice the bill does little to tackle these issues head on. Requiring public bodies to give ‘due regard’ to the principles of the covenant is an ambiguous piece of legalese, which is unlikely to make any real impact on the day-to-day lives of forces personnel, something we know the Local Government Association is concerned about in this bill.
Ministers also say they will produce ‘statutory guidance’ for local governments on the new responsibilities, but this should be published now, alongside the bill, to allow proper scrutiny as the legislation passes through the House of Commons. The bill should set measurable, national standards that would end the postcode lottery and the fear of the potential ‘two-tier covenant’ raised by, among others, the Royal British Legion.
The government should not be passing the buck with something that is unclear, does little to tackle the challenges service personnel face directly, but meanwhile places greater responsibilities on local authorities with little additional support. Funding should follow responsibilities, yet local authorities could once again be chastised by ministers as they kick the can down the road once more.
This is a non-contentious bill, and government should be seeking to work across the House to deliver for the armed forces community. It should be empowering local authorities in continuing to deliver for our service men and women, veterans, and their families, not holding them back. Labour will seek to make sure that changes.