Ed Miliband called yesterday for urgent cross-party talks to end discrimination against soldiers and their families after figures showed that members of the armed forces are subject to verbal and physical abuse and financial problems when settling into home life in the UK.
The Labour leader, during a visit to Afghanistan, promised to work with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in creating greater protection for service personnel and their families, which would bolster the existing Military Covenant.
A recent survey of the armed forces conducted by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft showed that more than one in five servicemen or women had experienced verbal abuse from strangers while wearing their uniform in public in the past five years, with one in 20 experiencing violence or attempted violence.
Some 18 per cent have been refused service in hotels and pubs while wearing their uniform. More than a quarter have been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card during the same period, with regular changes of address damaging their credit ratings. ForceSelect, a recruitment agency specialising in employment for veterans, has detailed how ex-service personnel are discriminated against when trying to find a job.
Mr Miliband said the principles of the Military Covenant should "characterise the whole of our society" and that new legal rights were necessary to fill the gaps. He said the parties should work with service charities and the military to create new legal rights for soldiers.
The Labour leader said: "We must protect those who protect our nation. I am proud that our country took the step to enshrine the Military Covenant in law and that Labour supported the service charities' campaign to do so. My concern is that we must make the principle that no one suffers disadvantage as a result of service a reality for all and a characteristic that defines the whole of our society.
"It is deeply sad that elements of the service community today still face discrimination. It is unforgivable that a minority choose to abuse those who give so much. The pride we feel in our armed forces and their families demands that we end any discrimination they receive. Whether in access to hotels and pubs, housing or healthcare, those who serve deserve the utmost respect and admiration.
"Today, I'm saying let's put an end to it. I am calling on the Government to hold urgent talks with all parties, the service charities and the military on how we can make this happen.
"All options must be on the table, including new legal rights for the service community to protect them against the very worst of discrimination and abuse. I hope the Prime Minister will take this approach. Protecting our forces at home is an objective around which we can all unite, just as we do when they are overseas."
Mr Miliband arrived in Afghanistan on Friday with Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, and defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, but the visit was kept secret for security reasons until yesterday evening. The Labour MPs held talks in Kabul with Hamid Karzai after visiting British troops in southern Helmand.
Mr Miliband warned the international community to "up its game" on political progress in Afghanistan or risk wasting a decade of sacrifice by British soldiers. He expressed fears that the country would slip back into being a failed state when combat troops are withdrawn in 2014. Despite giving his backing to the planned withdrawal date and to David Cameron's approach, he said there was "a long way to go".
"The Prime Minister is right to set a timetable. I think we should stick to the timetable," he said. "We have invested a lot. Many of our troops have made huge sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice. The best way we can honour that is to ensure the political settlement we need."
The expert view
"I'm very glad to hear Ed Miliband standing up for service people and bringing this out into the open. Whether we need legislation, I'm not sure... To my mind, it's changing attitudes that has got to happen. How you do that I don't know.
"It is an attitude problem, and it's where you draw the line between somebody just saying 'I'm not going to give you any help' and being thoroughly unpleasant to them and saying 'you can't get on the bus', or 'you can't get in the taxi', or 'you can't come into a pub'. I'm all for what Ed Miliband says; my question is: what's next?"
Major-General Julian Thompson; Former commander of the Royal Marines
"I find it appalling that people in uniform are abused and not allowed in pubs and that sort of thing. I was shocked by Lord Ashcroft's report. It makes sense for all parties to look at whether there needs to be some form of legislation to ensure there isn't discrimination against servicemen. It needs to be an all-party thing. Anything like this I don't think should be made party political."
Admiral Lord West; Former First Sea LordReuse content