The primary purpose of this Bill is to renew the Armed Forces Act (AFA) 2006 and, in so doing, continue in force the primary legislation governing the armed forces.
- Armed Forces serving personnel, veterans, reservists and their families are valued members of our communities. All councils have signed the voluntary Armed Forces Covenant and are fully committed to honouring their obligations to those who have served their country.
- Councils work with partner organisations to provide a range of services that support serving personnel and their families. Councils also support veterans and their families to adjust from the Armed Forces to civilian life, including housing, money advice, employment support, schools and health and wellbeing services. The LGA has published several reports highlighting and sharing best practice across local government.
- We fully support the aim of the Bill to help ensure armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged by their service when accessing key public services. We will continue to work positively with government to further embed the Covenant locally, building upon what has already been achieved.
- We are concerned that clause 8 of the Bill, which sets out the proposed statutory duty for all UK public authorities to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant, lacks detail. This means that it is difficult to fully understand the implications for councils across housing, education and healthcare services. It is important that potential new burdens are fully funded by national government and kept under review so that councils can continue to deliver high quality services to their armed forces community. We look forward to seeing guidance which will set out what is expected of councils in greater detail.
- A recurring challenge for councils is identifying veterans. More information about the number of veterans in our communities would help councils better plan their local services to make sure we have the right services in place. It is welcome that work is already underway to address this.
- We are working with national government to ensure councils are sustainably funded as financial certainty and sustainability will help ensure local government can continue to maintain and improve services, including honouring their important local Covenant commitments.
- We welcome the government’s commitment to work with local government to develop the statutory guidance that will underpin the legislation. This should be co-produced with councils so that the duty builds upon existing partnerships and good practice, allows local flexibility to deliver Covenant pledges and supports innovative approaches.
- The Armed Forces Bill is an important step forward and we will continue to work with government, partner organisations and the armed forces community to ensure that its delivery is a success.
About the Armed Forces Bill
The primary purpose of this Bill is to renew the Armed Forces Act (AFA) 2006 and, in so doing, continue in force the primary legislation governing the armed forces. The Bill also provides for measures to maintain the effectiveness of the service justice system so that it continues to meet the needs of the armed forces and it will further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law. This briefing focusses on Clause 8 because this is the provision that is most relevant to local government.
Clause 8 amends Part 16A of the AFA 2006 to impose a duty to have due regard to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant, as follows: (a) the unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces; (b) the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and (c) the principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.
These principles are already set out in the existing duty on the Secretary of State to make an annual Armed Forces Covenant report (section 343A of the AFA 2006). The new duty will apply to specified persons or bodies, including councils, when exercising certain housing, education or healthcare functions. Given the devolved nature of those functions, this briefing concerns the implications of the Bill for English councils.
Local government and the Armed Forces Covenant
The further enshrinement of the Armed Forces Covenant into law is an opportunity to build upon work councils are already leading to help serving personnel, veterans, and their families to have the same equality of access to public services as their civilian neighbours. This includes the areas of focus in the bill – housing, education and healthcare. Some local Covenant projects go beyond this, for example to cover employment, welfare, and transport. Councils play a key role in the provision or commissioning of these services with partners and joining-up support around the needs of an individual and their family.
How councils respond to the Covenant will vary depending on local circumstances and the population profile. We are working to increase the already high level of awareness in local government of the Covenant. Our national Covenant Officer network shares good practice to help councils improve how they support the Armed Forces community. Armed Forces champions - usually councillors - help to embed the Covenant across local services, galvanising partners and providing challenge.
In 2016, the LGA worked with Forces in Mind Trust to publish the second edition of the ‘Our Community – Our Covenant’ report. This included commissioning Shared Intelligence to carry out research into ways of improving the local delivery of the Armed Forces Covenant. Key findings included:
- Most councils have appointed an Armed Forces Champion, usually a councillor.
- Good progress has been made in embedding the Covenant principles across local services, especially housing, education, employment support and health.
- Engagement with the Covenant varies according to the size of the Armed Forces Community in a particular place (a key issue is identifying veterans).
- There is sometimes a mismatch between expectations of the Armed Forces Community andwhat councils can do, particularly in relation to housing.
The report also includes a practical self-assessment tool to help councils understand their progress with implementing local Covenant pledges and a ‘core infrastructure’ framework to assist councils who want to strengthen support for the Armed Forces Community. Many councils have gone further than this and have embedded supporting the Covenant across local services. We are pleased to be working with Forces in Mind Trust to develop ‘Our Community Our Covenant 3’, which will examine the impact of the Covenant in reducing disadvantage for the Armed Forces Community across the UK.
In 2019, we commissioned Shared Intelligence to develop 10 case studies of local projects funded by the Armed Forces Covenant Trust. The Covenant Fund is delivered by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust and has £10 million to fund projects which support the delivery of the Covenant and benefit the Armed Forces Community each year. Amongst a wide-ranging programme of activity, the Fund awarded 17 large grants to local authorities in England in 2016/17, the majority of which were completed by the end of 2020. Alongside this, the Fund awards grants to local projects up to a value of £20,000.
The report highlights the action that councils and their partners are taking to deliver the objectives of the Armed Forces Covenant and the important part that the Covenant Fund is playing in supporting that action. It provides examples of good practice and evidence of the steps that councils are taking to ensure that members of the Armed Forces Community are treated fairly and do not suffer disadvantage because of their service. Whilst Covenant Fund grants provide a welcome boost to local Covenant projects, its short-term and limited nature means that it cannot fully fund the local capacity needed to sustainably drive forward the Covenant given the other funding pressures local government faces.
A recurring challenge is identifying veterans. More information about the number of veterans in our communities would help councils better plan their local services to make sure we have the right services in place. Several projects are underway to improve the availability of local information about the veteran population, and how it is projected to change in the future. We also welcomed the Government’s decision to include a question on whether someone has served in the Armed Forces in the 2021 census.
Proposal to further enshrine the Armed Forces Covenant into Law
We fully support the aim of the Bill to help ensure Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged by their service when accessing key public services.
We are concerned about the lack of detail currently available about the proposed duty on councils to have due regard to the Covenant principles in the specified service areas. Whilst many councils are already leading comprehensive approaches to local Covenant delivery, the lack of detail means that it is difficult to accurately identify new burdens costs, which must be fully funded by Government and kept under review.
We welcome the government’s commitment to working with councils to develop the statutory guidance that will underpin the new statutory duty. This is an opportunity to embed a shared approach that will build upon what councils and local partners have already achieved, provide clarity about the scope of the statutory duty, further detail about what the duty means in practice and its implications for partnership working, recognise local flexibility to deliver Covenant pledges and support innovative approaches.
The Bill enables the Secretary of State to use regulations to add additional persons or bodies, and additional functions, to which the duty to have due regard will apply, beyond healthcare, housing and education. In this situation, we welcome the commitment to consult with stakeholders. Any further extension may have resource implications for councils, which will need to be fully identified and funded.
Local government funding
A key challenge to the sustainability of local Covenant projects is the cost pressures facing local government, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Local government must be fully and sustainably funded, so that councils can continue to honour their local Covenant commitments in full and not just those aspects that will be enshrined into law by the Armed Forces Covenant Bill.