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What is the Armed Forces Covenant?

The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of the moral obligation which exists between the nation, the Government and the Armed Forces. It was published in May 2011 and its core principles were enshrined in law, for the first time, in the Armed Forces Act 2011.

The Government is required by the Act to produce an annual report on the Armed Forces Covenant. In preparing that report, the Defence Secretary must have particular regard to:

(a) the unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;

(b) the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and

(c) the principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.

The Covenant does not create legally enforceable rights for service or former service personnel.

Implementing measures introduced under the Covenant’s umbrella may be the responsibility of central government, the devolved governments or local authorities.

The Armed Forces Covenant Fund provides £10 million per year to support projects and programmes that support the armed forces community.

The Government’s proposals

In the Queen’s Speech 2019 the Government said the Armed Forces Covenant will be “further incorporated into law“. On 11 November 2020 Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, confirmed plans to bring forward an Armed Forces Bill in 2021 “to legislate and further enshrine into law the armed forces covenant“.

There is very little information in the public domain about the Government’s proposals.

In January 2020, Johnny Mercer said the Bill will create a legal duty to have due regard to the Armed Forces Covenant. In a letter to chief executives and council leaders of a number of local authorities, the MOD’s Director of Armed Forces Peoples Policy explained:

The legislation will have the most effect by making it a legal duty for specified public bodies, including local authorities, to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant, and by including this commitment in the Armed Forces Bill to ensure it carries enough weight and stature as part of the Armed Forces Act. The duty will focus on healthcare, housing and education – the Covenant policy areas encompassed in the Armed Forces Act 2006 – and the areas most likely to affect serving and former members of the Armed Forces and their families.

Commentary

Given the lack of information in the public domain about the Government’s proposals, there has been very little commentary or reaction.

Service charities, who have been consulted by the MOD, have briefly discussed their concerns in comments to MPs and in their independent observations in the Armed Forces Annual Report 2020. Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, said:

The Government’s aim to consolidate the commitments set out in the Covenant is laudable; however, we are concerned that the proposed way forward, and unintended consequences, could combine to undermine their good intentions. In particular, Cobseo Members would want to ensure that the scope of the proposed legislation reflected the three principles at the heart of the Armed Forces Covenant and was sufficient to ensure that the many areas of potential disadvantage will be addressed. There is also a broader concern that if a legal standard is set that is below existing voluntary commitments, this could create the perception of a two-tier Covenant and, in practice, lead to services being reduced to what is mandated by law. A Joint MOD/Cobseo Working Group was established to address concerns, and will continue to be a means of tracking and influencing developments as the consultation process proceeds.

About the Armed Forces Act

An Armed Forces Act is required every five years. The Armed Forces Act 2016 was extended by the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2020 until the end of 11 May 2021. Any further Orders cannot extend the Act beyond the end of 2021 (Armed Forces Act 2006, section 382). 

The purpose of the Armed Forces Act is to provide the legal basis for the armed forces and the system of military law which exists in the UK. It sets out nearly all the provisions for the system of service law – of command, discipline and justice – that applies to all service personnel wherever they are operating. In the past the Act has also been used to introduce any new measures relating to the armed forces that fall outside the Act’s traditional remit of service discipline. The Armed Forces Act 2006 was extensive and amounted to a complete overhaul of the legislation relating to military law and Service discipline. Subsequent Acts have amended the 2006 Act.


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