They are doing their duty, but we aren't doing ours

Foreign Affairs & Security
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Benjamin Harris-Quinney

Remembrance weekend is always a time where the issues faced by our service men and women come to the forefront of political debate.

This year’s remembrance day also marks a significant year for the future of our armed forces, and a crossroads from where the structure and relationship in the UK between the people, the military and the government will undergo significant change.

The last year has seen the implementation of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and concurrently significant austerity measures applied to the armed forces. The most enduring process of change that will have begun in 2011 is the proposal being carried forward to enshrine the military covenant into law. The Prime Minister, supported by his government, has been ever ready in robust praise and vocal support for the armed forces. That support however has not yet translated into action.

It is crucial that the British public and members of our armed forces make abundantly clear to our government exactly what is expected with regard to provision of resources and care in the enshrining of the military covenant into law.

The 2008 report “Restoring the Covenant” led by Lord Forsyth and delivered to David Cameron when leader of the opposition poses the question “They are doing their duty, are we doing ours?”, the answer three years later is still 'no'.

On the eve of the 11th of the 11th 2011 in the annual armed forces remembrance House of Lords debate, Lord Walker asked questions relating to several significant areas that he felt the government was not fulfilling their duty to their military.

Lord Walker raised concerns that requests for a dedicated military coroner had been dismissed by the Justice Secretary, that redundancy measures being enacted by the Ministry of Defence were needlessly harsh and callous in their practice, and that the demarcation between responsibility of provision of care to armed forces personnel by the government and by charitable bodies (particularly relating to the Army Recovery Capability scheme) was ill defined enough to set a worrying precedent.

I take the view that, whilst a point has been made with regard to a dedicated chief coroner for the armed forces, the importance of retaining independence in the duty of coroner outweighs the benefits of a corner with an increased understanding of military “grammar”.

On the other two issues however I am in strong agreement, and I believe the nation is also.

There are regularly stories reported in the media of members of the armed forces or their families being insensitively treated, and whilst tragic these most often appear as isolated cases.

The upcoming redundancy of over 22,000 personnel, which will fall in many cases immediately following service can hardly be described as such, for those that have offered so much the indignity of redundancy seems completely unacceptable. On the issue of the Army Recovery Capability whilst few would wish to prevent charities from giving assistance, such assistance should be over and above that provided as a necessity by the state, and never instead of.

These are all questions that must be resolved in any military covenant.Beyond the pomp and circumstance of Remembrance Day the lives and livelihoods of some of our greatest citizens are at stake.  The question that lies at the bottom of the debate on armed forces care is not how much should we as citizens give to armed forces charities, but how much should be set aside by government to ensure the military receives the best care and resources? To that question the only answer is: 'more'.

The huge outpouring of emotion and charitable support on Remembrance weekend is about more than pride and fervour, the most important point for the government to understand is that not only is it needed, but the people of Great Britain want their government to do more and to give more to the armed forces.

In a period of great economic austerity this means tough choices, if more funds are to be directed to the armed forces, it means cuts elsewhere (of up to five billion pounds). Such choices made now are of course more significant, should they be enshrined in a covenant that forms the basis for duty of provision and care for the foreseeable future.

What it seems clear that the public and the military are saying, as guardians of that covenant, is that as a nation we are willing to make sacrifices elsewhere to ensure that we as citizens are seen to be doing our duty, while our armed forces are doing theirs. It is surely the government's duty to ensure that covenant is honoured.