MP hits out over care of Veterans

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Indy Politics

Veterans are being "stitched up" by the Government's failure to enshrine the military covenant in law, a leading MP has said.

Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, will table a series of amendments to the Armed Forces Bill designed to challenge the Government over its commitment to the covenant.

It comes after Royal British Legion director general Chris Simpkins told MPs that troops found it "pretty depressing" that the covenant was not included in the current Bill, despite the promise made by Prime Minister David Cameron on board HMS Ark Royal in June last year.

Mr Llwyd said: "It is politicians who place these brave troops in harm's way. We owe them a duty to ensure their wellbeing upon their return home.

"Anything else is a breach of the military covenant."

He added he had been excluded from the committee stage of the Bill, saying it "smacks of a stitch-up - in the same way as this toothless clause is stitching up veterans".

"There is a mandatory duty on the Government to implement the military covenant," he said.

"The last Labour government failed pitifully in this respect and we are still seeing increasing numbers of veterans in prison - maybe as high as at one in nine of the prison population.

"This was an opportunity to put veterans' welfare at the heart of the Bill - one that has been badly missed."

Figures showed last year that there were twice as many veterans in prison than British troops in Afghanistan, he said.

"I fear that this Government is about to continue in this failure to our troops."

Mr Llwyd, a long-time campaigner on veterans' welfare, said his amendments already had cross-party support and would place a legal duty on the Defence Secretary to act to provide progress.

"I will be ensuring that veterans are put at the heart of the Bill - and through voting with or against these, the UK Government will have to show whether they are serious about implementing the military covenant," he said.

Mr Simpkins said the Bill's proposal for an annual report by the defence secretary on how the Government is fulfilling its covenant obligations to servicemen, veterans and families amounts to "the MoD reporting on itself" and is not in the same league as inscribing those obligations in law.

Giving evidence to a House of Commons committee inquiry into the Bill on Thursday, he said that the principles of the covenant should be written directly into legislation, and that the annual report to Parliament should include input from independent voices.

"When the Prime Minister made his statement in June last year, the Armed Forces were very grateful for that recognition," Mr Simpkins said.

"In the last few days, I have heard the odd remark that it is pretty depressing that the Government appears to be having some sort of change of mind."

Mr Simpkins told MPs that drafts of the written covenant which he had seen were "not fit for purpose".

It should be possible to boil down the state's obligations to "a short set of principles which could and should be enshrined in law", he said.

Research by the probation union Napo in 2009 showed at least 6% of those on probation, parole or in jail were former members of the armed services.

But other estimates vary and there is no mandatory duty on the police, probation or prison service to identify veterans.

Napo said a study by Kent Police last year found that at least 40% of offences committed by veterans involved violence and up to 50% of former soldiers were unemployed at the time of committing the offence.

Depression, often masked by alcohol abuse, was a major problem, the union added.

The proposed amendments would make provision for a veterans' minister and also for financial support for veterans' support groups.

Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, said: "If members of the armed services are good enough to risk their lives and safety for Government then they must be good enough to receive proper assistance, counselling and guidance on their return to civilian life.

"Successive governments have said they would restore the military covenant which would ensure the welfare needs of former soldiers were paramount. It has not happened.

"The Armed Forces Bill is an excellent opportunity to introduce measures on a statutory footing to minimise the chances of former armed services personnel ending up in the criminal justice system, with mental health problems or becoming homeless."