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Sarah Ingham: Is writing the military covenant into law a mistake?

Sarah Ingham is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

The news that the Government is about to put the Military Covenant on a statutory basis could well unleash another law - that of unintended consequences.  The announcement that members of the Armed Forces and their families were to be treated as special cases was heard at breakfast-time today. By elevenses, many were asking: what about firefighters and police officers? By lunchtime, it was being pointed out that Service personnel are volunteers: no one actually puts a gun to a recruit’s head to force him or her to join up - the risk of that happening comes later.

Contrary to what is widely believed, the Military Covenant was not written on parchment with a quill pen, neither does not date back to the Iron Duke or Cromwell’s Ironsides, let alone to those happy few at Agincourt. Instead it was formalised in 2000. It’s a concept that has yet to reach its teens. It was written by the Army, for the Army and, even if they had heard of it, not too many soldiers took it too seriously – including those who wrote it.

Historically, the responsibility to look after those who have fought for Queen (or King) and country has been discharged rather grudgingly.  For all its architectural splendour, the completion of Chelsea’s Royal Hospital was delayed because the money ran out.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the government tried to wriggle out of paying pensions to those veterans who were eligible for them - and not all were. To paraphrase Kipling, attitudes towards soldiers and their dependents have been more “Tommy, go away”, rather than “Thank you Mr Atkins”.

Since late 2007, thanks in part to the efforts of CGS General Sir Richard Dannatt who declared it "out of kilter", along with some canny Parliamentary lobbying by the Royal British Legion which ran its Honour the Covenant campaign, the Covenant migrated from the confines of Military Doctrine to the civilian public. It became shorthand for all difficulties faced by an Army operating well beyond its means - or in MoD-speak, its Planning Assumptions: one that was never resourced or equipped or manned to fight as it had to in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The inadequacy or shortage of force protection measures such helicopters, armoured vehicles and body armour, whether in Basra or Sangin, came to be described in terms of a "broken" Military Covenant, which also summed up the public’s indifference to soldiers’ plight. Only a few years ago, how many of us really cared that they were paid less than traffic wardens or, that for some soldiers, their quarters in Helmand were in a better state than their barracks in Hounslow? Soldiers suffered the fallout from the unpopularity of Iraq among the public and its incomprehension about the mission in Afghanistan.

The Military Covenant is a moral understanding: in exchange for putting their lives on the line and giving up many of their civil rights, "soldiers and their families should be sustained and rewarded by appropriate terms and conditions of service". The public perhaps only properly woke up to fulfilling its side of the Covenant bargain when the consequences of the conflicts were literally brought home, either with the repatriations at Wootton Bassett or the lack of facilities for the seriously injured whether at Selly Oak or Headley Court.

But in the last few years, if Service-related charities are any indication, the public has done much to show their gratitude and esteem for "Our Boys". And our girls. Help for Heroes has raised £96m since its launch less than four years ago. In addition, in its 2008 Service Personnel Command Paper the Labour government properly focused the issue of the welfare of the Forces community - whether serving personnel, veterans and families. The current CDS General Richards points out that today British soldiers are better equipped than he’s ever known.

So why does the Government need to put this moral understanding on a legal basis? Perhaps just as in the 2008 Command Paper, it quite laudably wants to reinforce the principle of "no disadvantage": all too often because of their high mobility, service personnel or their families have to go to the bottom of queues for local healthcare, education or housing. But what happens if a soldier (or sailor or airman or marine) believes the Covenant is broken? The lawyers drafting this are surely mindful of the reports of an RAF typist being awarded £480,000 after contracting RSI.

From October 2007, in part prompted by the Royal British Legion, Conservative MPs made a great deal of political capital out of the tattered state of the Military Covenant and of Labour’s perceived indifference and neglect of the welfare of the men and women they sent in harm’s way.  Liam Fox told last year’s Party Conference that the Military Covenant had been "shattered" by Labour. A few months earlier on HMS Ark Royal, the Prime Minister said the Covenant would be written into the law of the land: in recent months there seemed to be some rowing back from this - until today’s announcement.

According to some serving personnel, if this Government were serious about honouring the Covenant it wouldn’t meddle with Forces’ pensions, or threaten the Continuity of Education Allowance that allows their children to enjoy an uninterrupted education. The Military Covenant was a potent weapon with which to attack the Labour government. However, now in power themselves, it might cause the Conservatives a self-inflicted wound.


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