Nick Smith MP Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent
The brave men and women who take the ultimate risks for our safety, freedom and way of life in far flung regions of the world deserve the support from their nation when they need it most. This is the basic principle behind the military covenant, an undertaking at the forefront of our minds as we prepare to remember those who have fallen defending democracy.
Soldiers must accept ‘unlimited liability’ in times of conflict. They are expected to leave their families for extended periods of time not knowing if they will ever come home to see them again. They are subject to combat immunity, preventing them from taking the government to civil court when injured in the line of duty. This makes society’s ‘duty of care’ to veterans particularly important, as it provides support for those injured while serving their country.
The military covenant is a recent term, but the principle behind it goes back for hundreds of years. Examples of Acts of Parliament designed to support those injured in battle go back to the Tudor period. The covenant was codified in 2000. An army publication noted that soldiers make many sacrifices as part of their service and should be able to expect fair treatment on their return from service. While the covenant officially only applies to the army, its principles are understood to extend to the Royal Air Force and navy too.
Although the term implies a legal guarantee, the military covenant was a voluntary agreement without basis in law. Last June, David Cameron stood on the HMS Ark Royal and promised to enshrine the military covenant in law, but despite appearing in the coalition agreement, the government was reluctant to fulfil this promise. I supported the British Legion’s campaign to give the military covenant the full force of law and have worked with them and Labour’s front bench team to force a government U-turn on the issue. The government has now accepted its responsibility, and I welcome this. In May then Defence Secretary Liam Fox made a statement to the House on how this would be done.
But we must do more. The covenant is not just an agreement between government and the military, but between the military and society as a whole. Labour took action on this issue while in government. The 2008 ‘Report of Inquiry into the National Recognition of Our Armed Forces’ said ‘The Armed Forces can only operate with maximum motivation and effectiveness if they are both morally and materially supported by the society they are defending’.
The report found that while there is enormous respect and gratitude throughout the population towards the armed forces, however, there is also a lack of understanding of the work the military do. While 80 per cent of people have a favourable view of the military as an institution only 48 per cent had an understanding of its work. This compared to 77 per cent for the NHS, 66 per cent for the police and 65 per cent for the BBC. This lack of understanding could prevent society from undertaking its obligations to the forces.
Government does not need to act to increase national support for the military, as this is already strong, instead we should be increasing the opportunity for contact between the public and the forces to give people an opportunity to increase their understanding and show their gratitude. We need to move beyond parades and ceremonies held ‘behind the line’ in military barracks, to find a better way to introduce the public to our armed forces. This could be done through holding open days at military establishments, creating veterans’ ID cards, and improving military outreach programmes for communities, cadet forces, and the business community.
Most of all we need to understand the constantly evolving role of our military. Unlike those who fought in the First and Second World Wars, our soldiers no longer have to protect Britain from direct attack from hostile governments. Today’s armed forces engage in humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping, as well as combating new threats like cyber attack on government computer systems and national infrastructure.
So when we pause for a moment’s silence this Armistice Day, spare a thought for the brave men and women that have died protecting the freedoms and security we enjoy today, and the way of life we have come to know. But after paying our respects we should turn our thoughts to the future, and ensure the sacrifices made by those currently serving in the armed forces, often our friends, family and those we know and care about, are respected and recognised. They have done their duty, we must ensure that we do ours.