David Cameron last night launched an 11th-hour bid to avert a backbench revolt over the Government's support for military personnel and veterans.
The coalition is to enshrine in law the broad principles of the military covenant – the nation's commitment to those who risk their lives on the frontline.
After weeks of Whitehall negotiations, and facing the prospect of a Commons rebellion over-watered down proposals, the Prime Minister will make clear that the welfare and support for the armed forces and their families will be written on to the statute book. An original plan to merely "reference" the covenant in law has been ditched, after a furious backlash from the British Legion, coalition MPs and veterans.
The move comes after years of campaigning for better recognition for those who put themselves in harm's way for their country. In March 2007 The Independent on Sunday revealed the mental health crisis within Britain's armed forces and the poverty of treatment available to service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This newspaper published an open letter to then Prime Minister, calling on him to restore the military covenant – the mutual obligation binding the nation, armed forces and all servicemen.
In opposition, Mr Cameron set up a commission on the covenant and, after taking power, used a visit to HMS Ark Royal last year to announce plans to "rewrite" it. He added: "Whether it's the schools you send your children to, whether it's the healthcare that you expect, whether it's the fact that there should be a decent military ward for anyone who gets injured... I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that's written into the law of the land."
However, when the Armed Forces Bill was published by the Ministry of Defence it promised only that ministers would report annually on progress in honouring the covenant, without spelling out what the forces could expect.
The Tory backbench MP Philip Hollobone tabled an amendment to the Bill which would grant formal recognition to the covenant – a potential focus for rebellion. A week ago the IoS revealed how ministers across Whitehall had been ordered to find – and fund – additional support. The Royal British Legion led other charities and campaign groups in criticising the weaker provisions in the Bill.
Andrew Robathan, a Defence minister, told The Daily Telegraph that the Government was "putting the military covenant on a statutory basis for the first time". Jim Murphy, Labour's shadow Defence Secretary, said: "The Prime Minister appears to have finally done the right thing. If true, this is a retreat from an inevitable defeat in Parliament in the face of real anger from forces' families and MPs."Reuse content