Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Armed Forces Covenant

Fridays debate and my speech on the Citizenship for overseas nationals serving in our Armed Forces gave me a chance to set out thoughts on the military covenant, and address how we are looking after our troops both locally and abroad. The Citizenship [Armed Forces] Bill addresses a loophole, identified in the miltitary covenant, where soldiers are discriminated against.
If a soldier, who is an overseas national, but serving in our Army, has been abroad serving in the 5 years prior to his application for British citizenship he cannot apply to be British, under the Nationality Act. This is being fixed by Jonathan Lord's Private Members Bill, which is supported by all the Army charities.

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)

The Bill is about two of the most important issues that we in the House of Commons debate—namely, the armed forces and immigration. Most of all, however, it is about justice and fairness, and that is surely what the armed forces covenant is all about. The covenant is not just a piece of paper; it is a priority for the Government. It is about fair treatment for our forces and about having an impact on the lives of the military personnel who serve in our communities. Its remit goes wider than that, however; it is about justice. The armed forces covenant is about an obligation on the whole of society. It involves voluntary, charitable and other bodies, as well as private organisations and it is about how all of us as individuals treat those who put their lives on the line for us. We all need to recognise that fact and to engage with it, so that we can implement the crucial elements of the covenant.

I urge those who are in any doubt about the process that the Government have entered into to study the covenant itself and to work their way through its history. The covenant was established in May 2011, and it was based on the principles of removing disadvantage from serving personnel in relation to access to public and commercial services, and of allowing special provision in some circumstances for the injured and the bereaved. The Government committed to rebuilding the covenant and established an armed forces covenant taskforce in July 2010. The taskforce reported to the Government, and many of its recommendations have subsequently been implemented. It produced two reports. The size of the second report—the “Armed forces covenant annual report 2012”, which runs to almost 100 pages—is testimony to the seriousness with which the Government are addressing these issues. It contains details of the specific measures that we are taking.
Significant achievements are to be found in many discrete areas of the covenant. Health care, for example, is a matter of prime importance for service personnel. Investment has been made in areas such as medical equipment in theatre and mental health care provision. Many of us have spoken in the House about the importance of providing support for our servicemen and women after they have been discharged from the Army, or when they are merely returning home on leave. I urge Members to visit Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, which was opened with £17 million of assistance from the Government. A further £5 million is going towards wards and accommodation. Thanks to the armed forces covenant, there have also been developments in housing. Members of the armed forces are now being placed at the top of the priority list on the Government’s First Buy scheme.
The armed forces covenant is why we are here today. The anomaly that the Bill seeks to address is that a serviceman or woman who serves overseas for a considerable length of time does not satisfy the requirements for naturalisation in the way that others are able to do.

I speak with great relevance to my own constituency because I have the privilege of having Albemarle barracks in my Northumberland constituency. For many years, the troops based there have been the 39th Regiment the Royal Artillery. By reason of the basing review, they are moving down to Wiltshire. We shall therefore be welcoming in the near future the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. Let me explain the relevance of this to the Bill. The 3rd Regiment RHA have been based at Caen barracks in Hohne, Germany. Many soldiers have spent a considerable period of time there—overseas. I do not know the exact number of individuals, but if that regiment has overseas servicemen working there who, by reason of the British Nationality Act 1981, do not qualify for citizenship, they would be exactly the sort of individuals who would benefit from the fact that this Government are addressing this particular anomaly. I speak as fifth generation immigrant—one with a lot more “Saxon” than “Anglo” in my name. It is certainly the case that anyone coming from 3rd Regiment RHA should be able to benefit when, as we all hope, the Bill of my hon. Friend Jonathan Lord, who has done great job bringing it before us, becomes law. I endorse entirely the support that various charities and Army organisations have expressed for the Bill and I welcome the fact that the Government have consulted them and got them involved. Like many others, I am a huge supporter of the Royal British Legion. I have raised funds for my local branch and it does a fantastic job. In addition, I welcome the fact that organisations such as Veterans Aid and the Army Families Federation have got involved and strongly supported my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Mel Stride (Central Devon, Conservative)
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the Bill. Is it not just as significant that, as far as we are aware, no organisations are hostile to the Bill, just as all the military charities are in favour of it?

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
That is the case. We need to recognise that there is a rich tradition of this country working with overseas soldiers in pursuit of the aims and objectives of the Queen and this country. One needs to think only of the battle of Britain. The Spitfire was not manned to the greatest degree by Anglo-Saxon men and women, as there were 145 pilots from Poland, 135 from New Zealand, 112 from Canada and 88 from Czechoslovakia; 41 were Irish and there were 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 11 Americans and one each from Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Zimbabwe. An interesting point that dovetails into our consideration of this Bill is that Jamaica will be particularly affected because its citizens continue to support and serve in our armed services to this day.
We appreciate the fact that the Bill is amending just one small part of the armed forces covenant, but it is certainly something that we should all support. As I reflect on the fact that there appears to be no opposition to the Bill and full support for it from a whole range of organisations, it makes me glad to be participating in private Members’ Bill proceedings for what I believe is the third time—I have a rich history over three years and three months with the Mobile Homes Bill and the Antarctic Bill, both of which I am pleased to say became law. I am very pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Woking on his Bill; he has done a fantastic job.