David Cameron confirms military covenant 'law' plans

David Cameron on HMS Ark Royal in June 2010
Image caption David Cameron pledged to recognise the covenant in law during a visit to HMS Ark Royal last year

The government is planning to write into law for the first time the principles of the military covenant, the prime minister has confirmed.

In an article for the News of the World, David Cameron says the government must ensure that it is doing everything it can for the armed forces.

He said the military would get "the recognition it deserves".

Campaigners have long been calling for the nation's duty of care to personnel to be translated into firm pledges.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox has been outlining the central principles of the covenant ahead of a full announcement on Monday.

He told BBC One's the Politics Show: "They are about accepting that the defence is the first duty of government, that those willing to lay down their lives for the country have a right to expect they will be dealt with properly."

But he said specific rights could not be set down in law for fear of the armed forces becoming "permanently embroiled with the European courts".

The BBC understands that other measures to improve soldiers' welfare in areas such as health, housing and education for forces' children will also be outlined on Monday.

Mr Cameron told the News of the World: "Our Armed Forces Bill will ensure Parliament holds the government to account on the central principle of the covenant that military personnel will not suffer any disadvantage as a result of their work.

"But in some areas we go further and make their needs a special case."

He added: "If we are asking our armed forces to do dangerous job in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, we have to ensure we are doing all we can for them in return."

He said the "historic agreement" meant the "value we place on those brave men and women who put their lives on the line will be written down for all to see".

The current military covenant 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.

Mr Cameron set up a review on the covenant and, speaking on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal last year, told personnel he wished to see it written into law.

But the Armed Forces Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, only proposed introducing an annual report on how the covenant was being honoured.

A campaign led by the Royal British Legion was backed by Labour and a Conservative backbencher and had raised the prospect of a damaging Commons revolt.

Amendments to the bill will now incorporate the principles of the covenant.

The Royal British Legion said the government's decision was a "historic breakthrough".

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "They put their lives on the line for us and I think it's right we do whatever we can for them"

Its director general Chris Simpkins said: "For the first time, armed forces personnel and their families will see the principles of fair treatment there on the statute book...

"We are particularly pleased that the unique nature of service will now be acknowledged."

BBC political correspondent Ben Geoghegan said it was still not clear what the new measures would mean in practice and whether minimum standards would be guaranteed by legislation.

However, two former heads of the armed forces welcomed news of the proposals, with Col Richard Kemp, who led UK troops in Afghanistan, calling it a "huge morale boost", and General Lord Dannatt describing it "a positive move".

Conservative MP and former soldier Patrick Mercer told Sky News the move would mean the government might face legal action but that it was a price worth paying.

"In the past all we have had is moral pressure. Now we will have legal pressure as well," he said.

For Labour, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "This is a retreat from an inevitable defeat in Parliament in the face of real anger from forces families and MPs.

"For months ministers have stuck their heads in the sand... I hope this marks the beginnings of a real reassessment of how the government is treating our armed forces."

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