Defence Secretary to unveil military covenant

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Defence Secretary Liam Fox will unveil the new military covenant today - promising extra help for the armed forces after the Government bowed to pressure to enshrine their rights in law.

Veterans' campaigners hailed a "major step forward" yesterday when David Cameron accepted demands for the principle of fair treatment for those who fight for their country to be put on a statutory basis.

Specific benefits in areas such as housing, health and education will not be written into law because of fears that could leave the Ministry of Defence "permanently embroiled" in court action.

But they will be published and debated annually by parliament.

The Armed Forces Bill originally included only an annual review of how the informal agreement was being met - leading to accusations the Prime Minister had broken a pre-election pledge to make it law.

Dr Fox said it would now explicitly recognise that "those who are willing to lay down their lives for the country have a right to expect that they will be dealt with properly.

"That there may be cases where we would want to discriminate in favour of the armed forces in provision of certain things in our society and we'll want to set those out so that people understand that if our armed forces are willing to lay down life and limb for the protection of the public, the public may have to give something back in return."

He told BBC1's Politics Show: "There was the problem with the concept of enshrining separate rights because we could have ended up with the armed forces permanently embroiled with European courts on specific rights issues."

Dr Fox is expected to set out a number of enhanced services for the military, such as doubling the rate of council tax relief to 50% for those serving overseas, a £3 million boost for schools with high numbers of children from forces family and making it easier for seriously injured service personnel and veterans to access cut-price public transport.

Shops and public sector organisations will also be encouraged to take part in a discount card scheme for veterans and action will be promised to improve military inquests and to provide those with genital injuries access to IVF treatment.

Housing Minister Grant Shapps is hosting a summit of defence officials, service charities, local councils and others to look at how to ensure serving and retired personnel are able to access decent accommodation.

The campaign to force Mr Cameron to meet his commitment was led by the Royal British Legion which said the "historic breakthrough" would benefit servicemen and their families for generations to come.

"This is an impressive package of support, but even more impressive is the irrevocable legacy of at last getting the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant written into law. This is a major step forward for the whole Armed Forces community."

An annual report on government compliance with the covenant will be written by the Defence Secretary with "key stakeholders" and published alongside an independent expert review.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "We back any measures which support our armed forces and will study these closely to ensure there is new investment which will deliver real benefits.

"But let's be clear, this is not an act of conviction but an act of submission. For months Ministers have refused to enshrine the covenant in law."