Talks over military covenant legal status

  • 14 May 2011
  • From the section UK
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Media captionColonel Richard Kemp: "It would be a huge morale boost to our forces"

A defence minister has indicated that the military covenant, which promises a duty of care to the Armed Forces, may be put on a formal legal footing.

A statement is expected on Monday on the matter, but it is unclear whether it would include specific pledges.

Defence Minister Andrew Robathan told the Daily Telegraph the change is to go ahead, but the BBC understands final discussions are still taking place.

The current military covenant itself is not legally binding.

Charities representing the Armed Forces have raised concerns over the treatment of some service personnel when they retire or return from active service overseas.

The Armed Forces Bill had previously only proposed introducing an annual report on how the covenant was being honoured.

The military covenant only officially applies to the Army, but its core principles are taken to extend to the air force and navy.

It states soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices - including the ultimate sacrifice - and that they and their families should expect fair treatment and to be valued, respected and properly rewarded.

In practical terms, it means they should be able to be entitled to adequate housing and health care.

General Lord Richard Dannatt , a former Chief of the General Staff - the highest position in the Army - warned that the government had to guard against simply putting the covenant into law and then thinking the job had been done.

He added: "The really important thing is that the things are provided, good accommodation, fair levels of pay, fair medical support for our troops and good equipment."

'Broad principles'

In opposition, Prime Minister David Cameron set up a review and expressed a wish to set out commitments on matters including compensation, education for military children and care for troops injured on the battlefield.

But when the government published the Armed Forces Bill, which is now going through Parliament, it just required the defence secretary to issue a report on the state of the covenant.

In response, the Royal British Legion, which had been campaigning for several years for the covenant to become law, said it was "pretty depressing" and MPs calling for changes expressed disappointment.

The passage of the bill had been delayed, with Tory backbench MP Philip Hollobone tabling an amendment for formal recognition of the covenant.

While Mr Cameron is expected to announce on Monday that the covenant is to be put on a statutory basis for the first time, it is also predicted that he will extend it to include all members of the armed forces.

It is thought the legislation will set out some broad principles rather than pledges on specific entitlements.

It is expected to say that no member of the armed forces should be disadvantaged because of their service and that in some cases, service personnel should be given special treatment.

BBC political correspondent Ben Geoghagen said it was not known whether the legislation would enable members of the armed forces to challenge the government in the courts if they felt the covenant was not being upheld.

Former military commander, Col Richard Kemp, said putting the covenant on a legal footing would "be a huge morale boost for our troops", but that it also had to include hard commitments.

Mr Robathan told the Daily Telegraph that the legal change would "ensure the best possible treatment for all our service personnel, both serving and retired".

Labour's shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, said the prime minister "appears to have finally done the right thing".

"I hope this marks the beginnings of a real reassessment of how the government is treating our armed forces," he added.

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